Thursday, October 27, 2016

7 Things to Consider When Voting Your Conscience as a Catholic

Early voting has begun here on campus, and many students will exercise their right to vote between now and official election day on Nov. 8. Here are seven things I hope my students, both Catholic and non-Catholic, will remember when they cast their ballots.

1. The Church does not endorse any political party.

This is very important. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. The Church does not endorse any political party or candidate. There is no one "Catholic party" that one can safely vote for without doing a bit of research first to see where the candidates stand on important issues.

2. Take your faith into the voting booth.

If your faith is something you only practice on Sundays, it is not true faith at all. Your faith should come to bear on every aspect of your life, in your family, among your friends, in your classes, in your workplace, and -- yes -- in the voting booth.

But isn't it wrong to try to legislate our religious beliefs upon others? Yes, if we are talking about matters of theology or religious practice. It would be wrong, for example, to make a law requiring everyone to be baptized (even if we truly desire everyone to be baptized). You cannot legislate belief. But you can and should legislate morality. We do it all the time. We have laws against things like theft and murder because these things are immoral. 

We tend to get uncomfortable when religion and politics seem too closely entwined, and not without reason. However, there is room for legitimate overlap. Morality is precisely that area where religion and politics overlap. Morality is all about the rightness and wrongness of human behavior. The only reason to have a law against something is because it is wrong.  This does not mean every venial sin needs to be made illegal!  However, some sinful things are so detrimental to society that, for the common good, they need to be prohibited. Where that line is drawn may vary in different times and places. This is where the prudential judgment of our lawmakers (and those who elect them) comes into play. (Read more on this subject here).

3. All moral issues are NOT equal.

A fundamental principle of morality is that we should do good and avoid evil. But we often disagree on how to do that. There are many issues of public policy where faithful people in good conscience can disagree about the best way to proceed. What sort of immigration policy is best for our country? What is the best way to address poverty in our society? What role should the federal government have in public education? In health care? These are matters of prudential judgement that good, faithful Catholics can disagree on and remain good, faithful Catholics.

On the other hand, certain actions are objectively evil -- meaning that they are always and everywhere wrong -- and therefore can never legitimately be promoted by law. Examples would include abortion and euthanasia (which involve ending an innocent human life), and same-sex marriage. It is immoral to perform these actions, and it is immoral to support others in doing so.  "A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law that contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals" (Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Notes on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life 4).  

Catholics and all Christians of good faith must avoid voting for any candidate who intends to support programs or laws that are intrinsically evil.  

4. What if there is no "good" candidate?

What happens when each candidate promotes morally objectionable policies? Compare the policies and their moral weight. Are these matters of prudential judgment, or are these matters of intrinsic evil?  Candidates who support objective moral evils cannot be supported unless their opponent(s) support more or greater objective moral evils.  When there is no "good choice" you should vote in a way you believe will limit the harm likely to be done.

5. Is it a sin to vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil?

This question is usually asked about candidates who support abortion, but it applies to support for any intrinsically evil act.  Pope Benedict XVI (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) addressed this question in 2004.
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons (Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion).

Note the distinction between formal cooperation and material cooperation.  Formal cooperation would mean, "This candidate supports abortion; I also support abortion, therefore I am voting for this candidate." In this case you are morally culpable for your actions in support of an objective evil. Material cooperation means, "I am voting for this candidate despite their policy on abortion because even though I disagree with them on this issue in my judgment the other candidate would cause even greater harm." In this case you are still cooperating in a way with the evil their policy supports, but without the same moral culpability.

Cardinal Ratzinger says that this material cooperation with evil can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.  What constitutes a proportionate reason is left to our prudential judgment. Given the grave evil of abortion (the taking of an innocent human life), the only proportionate reason to vote for a candidate who supports this would be if the opposing candidate had policies even more detrimental to life (i.e. a candidate who supports abortion in the first trimester only vs. a candidate who supports abortion at all stages of pregnancy).

6. Consider all your options.

The Catechism points out that citizens have a moral obligation to participate in the political life of their country (CCC 2239) and exercise their voting privileges (CCC 2240). However, exercising your right to vote also involves the obligation to inform yourself and to vote according to your conscience. 

In this particular election cycle, some plan to vote for a third party candidate, even though they are not likely to win, due to serious moral concerns about both of the two major candidates. Some people plan to stay home on election day because they cannot, in good conscience, support any candidate on the ballot. Some plan on voting for the candidate that they consider "the lesser of two evils."

Does a Catholic have to vote when their conscience will not allow them to support any candidate on the ballot? No.

Must a Catholic only vote for those candidates most likely to win an election, when their conscience tells them to support a third party candidate whose views are less morally objectionable?  Again, no.

You are morally responsible for voting your conscience; that may mean voting third party, voting for the "lesser evil," or not voting at all. You are responsible for the vote you cast. Cast your vote in the way that your conscience tells you will do the most good for our society, and to the greatest extent possible does not support any grave moral evils. You should do all you can to form your conscience responsibly, but only you can determine what that means for you in the voting booth. 

7. Remember: You are a citizen of a Kingdom.

People say this is the most important election of our times. They also said that last time. And the time before. The important thing -- the one thing that I hope all my students remember -- is that we are not to put our trust in princes. 
Put no trust in princes, in mere mortals powerless to save. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth; that day all their planning comes to nothing. Happy those… whose hope is in the Lord, their God, the maker of heaven and earth… (Ps 146:3–6a).
We live in this world and so have an obligation to participate in the political life of our country. But we cannot pin our hope on any politician or political party. First and foremost, we are citizens of Christ's Kingdom. The faithful Christian knows, at the end of the day no matter who sits in the Oval Office, that Christ is King.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Prerequisite to Prayer

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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Jesus continues to teach us about prayer in this week's readings.  This week, we are taught that humility is an essential element in prayer.  From Sirach we are told that "the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds" (Sir 35:21), and in our psalm we proclaim that "The Lord hears the cry of the poor" (Ps 34).  

The gospel (Lk 18:-14) offers a parable about two people who go to the temple area to pray. One, a proud and haughty Pharisee, offers God thanksgiving that he "is not like the rest of humanity." The Pharisees, we must remember, were a very observant sect of Judaism, following strictly the laws of Moses. Indeed, the Pharisee in the parable followed them so well he felt he had nothing to ask forgiveness for.

By contrast, we have the tax collector. Tax collectors are frequently seen in the gospels as examples of sinful people, a despised class. A tax collector earned his living by collecting taxes from the Jewish people for the Roman government; his pay was whatever additional money he could squeeze out of the people he collected from. The tax collector was seen as a criminal, a thief, and a traitor to his people. And in this parable, he also provides for us the model of our prayer. Unlike the Pharisee, who tells God how good he already is, the tax collector stands far off, eyes downcast, beating his breast and praying, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

This simple prayer of the tax collector has come down to us today as The Jesus Prayer.  Its most common form is, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  The only change made to the prayer from the gospel reading is to add the name of Christ, the one to whom we pray for mercy.

This prayer has been called the perfect prayer, and it is easy to see why.  It is short, and therefore easy to memorize, and repeat often.  It is an effective "arrow prayer" (a quick, short sentence one can pray in a time of need), as well as a wonderful tool for contemplation.  Despite its brevity, it contains within its few words all the essential elements of prayer.

It begins by addressing the object of our prayer, Jesus Christ, and identifying Him rightly as the Son of God. Just as importantly it identifies the subject of our prayer, that is ourselves, correctly as sinners. Finally, it asks for the one thing that a poor sinner truly needs from God - mercy.  It is all there.

What makes the prayer of the tax collector so much more effective than the prayer of the Pharisee? The tax collector, lowly as he was, had one thing that the Pharisee lacked, which ended up being the most important thing of all - humility. In fact, our Church teaches that if we don't have the virtue of humility, we cannot truly pray at all.  

Just look up "humility" in the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Humility is always mentioned in conjunction to prayer. The Catechism calls humility "the foundation of prayer" (CCC 2559).  Humility brings us back into communion with God and one another, enabling us to ask for forgiveness, which is a "prerequisite for both the Eucharistic liturgy and personal prayer" (CCC 2631). Finally, when talking about contemplative prayer, that prayer which God conforms man to His likeness, the Catechism says it can "only be accepted in humility" (CCC 2713).

Why would this be? Humility is the virtue by which we understand ourselves as we truly are before God. Before God, all souls are lowly.  When we compare ourselves to other human beings, we are always tempted to be like the Pharisee in the parable. We are tempted to think, I'm so much better than everyone else, or At least I'm not as bad as that person. But when we see ourselves in light of God, we realize how silly this way of thinking is. What does it matter if I am better or worse than anyone else? It's not my job to judge other people. It's not even my job to judge myself! Only God will judge us, and in light of His perfect goodness, who could withstand His judgment? No one stands before God Almighty and thinks, I'm pretty good compared to Him!  We are all lowly before God. Humility allows us to recognize that.

Humility allows us to look critically into our hearts and identify our failings. Humility allows us to then lift our sins up to God and ask Him to remove their burden from us. Humility allows us to ask for forgiveness, for without humility we would not know we need forgiving.

As I stated last week, the purpose of prayer is not to change the way God thinks about us, but to change us to become more like God. And this transformation, this divinization, requires humility. If we are to be formed more perfectly into His image, we must be soft and malleable, like clay or the soft wax of a seal, ready to bear God's impression.  

St. John Chrysostum had this to say about the Jesus Prayer.
A soul that forces itself to pray the Prayer of Jesus can find anything by this prayer, both good and evil. First it can see evil in the recesses of its own heart, and afterwards good. This prayer can stir the snake to action, and this prayer can lay it low. This prayer can expose the sin that is living in us, and this prayer can eradicate it. This prayer can stir up in the heart all the power of the enemy, and this prayer can conquer it and gradually root it out. The name of the Lord Jesus Christ, as it descends into the depths of the heart, will subdue the snake which controls its ranges, and will save and quicken the soul. Continue constantly in the name of the Lord Jesus that the heart may swallow the Lord and the Lord the heart, and that these two may be one. However, this is not accomplished in a single day, nor in two days, but requires many years and much time. Much time and labor are needed in order to expel the enemy and instate Christ (Letter to Monks, PG 60).
So I encourage you to make the tax collector's prayer your own. Commit the Jesus Prayer to heart. Repeat it often throughout the day. Eastern Christians make a litany of this prayer, the way we do of the Hail Mary prayer in the West, repeating it on every knot or bead of their prayer ropes.  You can repeat this prayer several times in your mind and on your lips as an addition to your morning or evening prayer routine. Or you can use the prayer at various times throughout the day, in times of need or simply while engaging in semi-automatic tasks such as walking to class, driving, washing dishes, or folding laundry. Make this prayer part of the rhythm of your mind. Plant this prayer in your heart and it will bear great fruit in your soul.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Faithfulness In Prayer

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel "to pray always without becoming weary" (Lk 18:1). How are we to interpret this? Isn't Jesus being just a bit unrealistic. Praying often, sure. But praying always? Come on, Jesus, be real.

Any time we think of Jesus is being unrealistic, we need to adjust our perspective. Jesus is the Author of Reality. He defines what is and is not real. And He does not demand of us anything that He does not give us the ability to achieve.  

Or perhaps we think this Sunday's readings mean that we can get whatever we want simply by praying long and hard enough. If we just keep asking God for the same thing over and over we will get our way.  Here again, if we are think prayer is about "getting what we want," we need to adjust our perspective. 

God is the object of our prayer. We are the subject. We pray to God because we long to speak with Him and listen to Him. But the point of prayer is for us to be changed, not God, who is never-changing. This is why Jesus teaches us to pray "Thy will be done" (Mt 6:10). He models this on the night before His passion during the agony in the garden, when He prays, "not My will, but Yours be done" (Lk 22:42). Prayer is not about changing God's mind: it is about changing our hearts. 

So why be persistent if prayer is not about trying to change God's mind?

Another word for persistence is faithfulness. St. Paul writes in the second reading (2 Tm 3:14-4:2) about the need to "remain faithful to what you have learned and believe," and to "be persistent" in proclaiming the word, even when it is inconvenient. Being faithful in prayer helps us to become more like God, Who is ever-faithful. It expresses a commitment that is not dependent upon any outside criteria or contingencies.  Praying to God always -- even when it is hard, even when we don't really feel like it -- demonstrates our faithfulness to Him in good times or in bad, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health (there is a reason we also use the word "faithfulness" in relation to marriage).

But the question remains -- how do we do it? It is one thing to say we should "pray always" as Christ does here, or to "pray without ceasing" as St. Paul does in 1 Thes 5:17. But how can we do this, when we have classes to attend, jobs to go to, meals to cook and eat, homework to do, laundry to wash, and countless other tasks of life?  Are we to abandon all responsibilities and walk around muttering while fingering our rosary beads like a crazy person in a psychological thriller?

One of the most important lessons about prayer I ever learned was from St. John Damascene, who defined prayer as "the raising of one's mind and heart to God" (CCC 2559).  If we are to pray always, we must expand our understanding of prayer. St. Theresa of Lisiuex, the "Little Flower," described her prayer as "a surge of the heart."  The 17th century Carmelite Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection described it as "practicing the presence of God."

Brother Lawrence writes:
The time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were on my knees (The Practice of the Presence of God).
Raising one's mind and heart to God means living your life aware that God is the preeminent reality. It means recognizing God as your maker and King, Who is also your beloved Father and Redeemer. It means that in all you do -- taking an exam, walking the dog, or working in the kitchen like Brother Lawrence -- you remain mindful of God as the most important part of your life, with love of Him in your heart, acting in a way pleasing to Him.

This is what it means to "pray always." But this does not excuse us of the need to also have specific times of prayer in our day. In fact, it demands it. For if we do not set aside specific times devoted to prayer, we will never develop the habit of praying always. Even Jesus, Who was always perfectly united with God the Father, spent regular times alone in prayer.

The Catechism defines prayer as the "personal relationship with the living and true God" (CCC 2558). Let that sink in for a moment. Prayer is not just something we do with God (or "at God" as many people approach prayer). Prayer is our relationship with God.

I wrote above about "faithfulness" being a word applied to marriage. In marriage, I am called to be faithful to my wife all the time, whether I am with her or not. As I go about my day, I'm never not aware of the fact that she is my wife. I think of her often. I may send her text messages, or call her to check in. All of these things are important to our relationship. Yet this ongoing faithfulness would not come as easily, nor would it be as meaningful, if we did not also set aside special time to be together as husband and wife.

This is what dedicated prayer time does for our relationship with God. It strengthens and sustains it. It increases our intimacy with Him. It is where we give ourselves the chance to fall in love with Him all over again. When we do so routinely, then it becomes second-nature to carry His presence with us throughout the rest of the day.

When Christ asks us to "pray always," He is asking us to "think of Me always," and "be with Me always." He is calling us to faithfulness in our relationship with Him. He is calling us to fall more in love with Him.  If that thought intimidates you, or if you simply don't know where to start, that's perfectly alright. You can begin your prayer by admitting to God, "I don't know how to pray as I ought," as St. Paul does in Romans 8:26. Then ask for His help and let Him guide you. Prayer is your relationship with God, and that means you never pray alone.

Ask God in your prayer to draw you into a deeper relationship with Him each day. Then be faithful. Be persistent. Relationships are strengthened over time. You may not notice a difference after just one or two days in prayer, but if you keep at it you will develop such a rich friendship with God that you will begin reflecting His goodness in your life. This is the secret of the saints. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

In All Circumstances Give Thanks

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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Both the first reading (2 Kings 5:14-17) and the gospel (Lk 17:11-19) this week tell of miraculous healings.  

Naaman is healed of his leprosy by bathing in the River Jordan, following the instructions of the prophet Elisha.  His immediate desire is to offer thanks.  He wants to give Elisha a gift, but Elisha refuses.  It was not him who effected the healing, after all, but God.  So Naaman turns to God in thanksgiving, vowing to no longer serve any God except for the Lord.

In our gospel reading, ten lepers ask Jesus to heal them, and all ten were healed. But only one, a Samaritan, returns to offer thanks. Jesus remarks, "Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Then He tells the Samaritan, "Your faith has saved you." The other nine had enough faith to ask for healing.  But only the Samaritan followed through with gratitude.  

This should prompt us to think about all the good things in life we have from God.  Are we grateful for them?  Do we let Him know? Maybe you have experienced a physical healing like the lepers in these accounts. Maybe you have experienced spiritual healing from sin. All of us have been given the gift of life. If we stop to think just for a moment, there is so much we ought to be thankful for: our families, our friends, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the ground we walk on. Our blessings are without number.

But not everyone has family. Not everyone has friends. Not everyone has food to eat. Despite our many blessings, each of us also experiences hardship. Each of us experiences suffering.  If we look at the second reading this Sunday (2 Timothy 2:8-13), St. Paul indicates that, as Christians, we should expect to suffer.  He writes about the fact that he suffers "as a criminal" for the sake of the gospel.  He writes of the need to die with Christ in order to live with Christ.  Should we thank God even in the midst of hardship?

The key, I believe, is found in the Alleluia verse before the gospel for this Mass.  It is taken from another of St. Paul's letters (1 Thess 5:18).  "In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus."

The will of God is always for your good.  The will of God is for you to become a saint.  The will of God is for your salvation, so God directs all things in your life toward that end.  In that sense, everything that happens to you -- even those things which you perceive as suffering and hardship -- are occasions of healing in Christ.  By uniting your suffering to His, you can die with Christ so that you might live with Christ.  For that opportunity to die with Christ, you can and should give thanks.

Lest we forget, on the very night before He was to suffer His great passion and death, Jesus took bread and wine, offered it to the Father, and gave thanks.  The word in Greek for "thanksgiving" is Eucharist.  Each and every time we celebrate the Eucharist, it is an offering of thanksgiving to the Father for the suffering, death, and resurrection of His Son.  

As Christians, we are a Eucharistic people, a people of thanks.  Let us seek, like St. Paul, to give thanks to God in all circumstances of our lives, and to experience the healing offered to us through the will of God in Christ Jesus.  Amen.  

Thursday, September 29, 2016

What We Are Obliged to Do

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

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Jesus speaks to us often in metaphor when He wants to convey a truth about our relationship with God. Sometimes they may be relatively easy to understand, like the story of the prodigal son, telling us of God's mercy and desire to forgiving. But then there are times, as in this week's gospel reading from Luke 17:5-10, when we may be left scratching our heads.  What is Jesus trying to tell us here?

He asks if a master would ever tell his servant, just in from doing his job tending the sheep or plowing the field, to sit and dine at the table?  The answer is no.  The master would tell the servant to prepare a meal for him and wait on him while he ate.  Only when the master was finished would the servant eat his meal.  Jesus asks whether we would expect the master to be grateful to the servant for simply doing his job.  The implied answer is no.

To understand what is going on here, we need to get past our modern day notions of equality and affirmation.  Today, there would be nothing unusual about a boss thanking an employee for a job well done.  In fact, we expect it.  We'd consider an ungrateful employer to be a poor excuse for a boss.  Likewise parents routinely thank their children for completing household chores.  Teachers thank their students for turning assignments in on time.  We routinely give thanks to others and expect thanks in return.  

But this mutual exchange of gratitude is only possible between equals.  An employer and an employee in a company may hold different ranks, but they share an equal human dignity.  Not so with us and God. He is farther above us than the stars are above the earth.  We are not His equal, and this is the key to unlocking the metaphor.  

The servant in the story doesn't expect thanks for simply following his master's commands. So should be our attitude toward God. Christ tells the Apostles, "So it should be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’” (Lk 17:10).

God is our master and we are His servants. Is Jesus just telling us that God is an ungrateful master?  No. He's telling us something true and important about our relationship with God. Even though we are called to serve Him, it is we who should have the attitude of gratitude, and not of entitlement.

This parable is told in response to the Apostles asking Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus is telling them that if they want to grow in faith, it cannot be because they expect recognition or reward.  If we serve God because we think it will earn us accolades, then we are not really serving God; we are serving ourselves.  No matter how faithfully you serve God, there is nothing you can ever do that will earn favor before Him.  At the end of our lives, at our Judgment, it will always be us who should give thanks to God, not the other way around.

So then why serve Him at all? Why toil away doing the work of God if it won't earn us even a simple "thank you?" Why bother following the commandments? Why bother spreading the good news of salvation? Why bother working for peace and justice?

The only answer is because it is right.  The word justice comes from the Latin word jus, which means "right."  To do justice is to do the right thing. To follow God's commands is to do the right thing. To serve God, our Master and our Maker, is to do the right thing. We serve Him because it is good and right to do so; not because we expect any reward.

If we can learn to do this -- if we can learn to love and serve God, and by extension love and serve our neighbor, not for any praise our good works may earn us, but simply because it is the right thing to do -- then we will have increased in faith, and increased in true holiness.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Compete Well For the Faith

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

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This past weekend I accompanied a group of twenty-one college students on a retreat about Spiritual Warfare. As this Sunday's reading from 1 Timothy reminds us, our spiritual life is a battle.
But you, man of God, pursue righteousness,
devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.
Compete well for the faith.
Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called... (1 Tim 6:11-12)
This eternal life to which we are called by God is not a given.  It is something we have to lay hold of.  It is something we must compete for.

Here are some key aspects to spiritual warfare that we need to keep in mind.

The Devil is Real
There are two mistakes we can make about the Devil.  One is to not believe in him at all.  This makes his job easy, because you won't be on guard against a threat you don't perceive.  The second is to see him everywhere.  There is a tendency to attribute every evil and temptation to the Devil, and this gives him too much power.  It also leads to fear, which is a victory for Satan.  God tells us, "Be not afraid!"

Spiritual warfare is fought on three fronts.  We battle against the world, against the flesh, and against the Devil.  By "world" and "flesh" I don't mean that these things are inherently bad.  God made the world and He made us, so the world and the people in it are inherently good.  But we are fallen, and the world has fallen with us.  We have a tendency to sin (the fancy word for that is concupiscence).  We don't know how to govern our passions well.  And the world is full of other people who also have these consequences of the fall.

We have desires and impulses that can lead us into sin, so we have to be disciplined and govern our passions.  There are worldly influences that can also tempt us away from God.  We must fight against these, as well.  These are very real aspects of spiritual warfare.  But these are passive threats. The Devil is actively out to get you.  He hates you.  He wants you to go to hell.  While we are capable of damning ourselves without the help of Satan, he wants to make it as easy as possible. We must be on guard against the Devil.  If we don't know who our enemy is, we can't effectively engage in the battle.

You Are Not Alone
If that sounds scary, remember this--just like the Devil and his demons hate you and want to steer you toward hell, God and all the angels and saints love you and want to bring you to heaven.

The saints and angels are your comrades and fellow soldiers in the battle for your soul.  Get to know them.  Read the lives of the saints and imitate their holiness of life.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  There are young saints and old saints.  There are saints who are priests, and saints who were married. There are saints who were scientists and poets.  All their stories are different, but they all share one thing in common.  They competed well for the faith and won the victory promised in Christ.  They can show you how to do the same.

And don't forget the angels!  The Catholic Church teaches that we each have a guardian angel assigned to us by God (Mt 18:10).  Your angel has one task -- to help you get to heaven.  He is your greatest ally in the fight against the Devil.  Get to know your guardian angel.

Use Your Weapons
Every warrior needs a weapon. The Church provides us with many spiritual weapons and we need to learn to use them effectively.  Some of those weapons are prayer, scripture and the sacraments. If you are not going to Mass, if you are not praying daily, if you are not reading the scriptures, then you are not in the fight.  These things are vitally important.  But don't discount sacramentals.  One of the cool things about being Catholic is all the "stuff."  We have rosaries and saint medals and holy water.  We have icons and statues and scapulars.  All of these things (especially when blessed by a member of the clergy) are wonderful tools to help us compete for the faith throughout our day to day lives.

Don't go unarmed into battle with the Devil. Take advantage of your weapons!

Keep Up Your Defenses
In a lot of vampire fiction, vampires cannot enter a person's home unless they are invited.  No one would willingly do that, so a lot of story lines involve the vampires cunningly tricking unsuspecting victims to invite them inside.

Satan is sneaky. No one is going to open the door to a big scary demon who comes knocking.  The Devil comes in disguise.  Think about Adam and Eve.  Satan didn't tempt our first parents to fall with an obvious evil.  He tempted them with fruit.  He tempted them with knowledge.  He tempted them with things that appear to be good. That's how he operates.  Don't fall for Satan's Trojan horses.  Very often he tempts us with things we think will make us happy, but actually go against God's love for us.

And by all means don't play around with the occult!  Things like Ouija boards and Tarot cards are not toys.  Necromancy (attempting to communicate with the dead), witchcraft, astrology and other occult practices are specifically forbidden in the scriptures (Deut 18:9-12).  You may be tempted to play around with these things "for fun" but Satan can use them as vehicles to enter into your life.  Don't give him that opportunity.

We also have to be wary of accepting the devil in small ways.  He can enter in through gaps in your defenses through small, venial sins.  St. Teresa of Avila, in her spiritual classic, The Interior Castle, likened these to little lizards who enter in through cracks in the castle wall.  I raise sheep, and our pasture is protected by a strong fence. But it's not enough for me to build the fence.  I have to walk the perimeter on a regular basis to inspect it and make repairs as needed.  We need to do the same thing in spiritual warfare by making a daily examination of conscience and regular confession to a priest.  A good spiritual director also helps!

The War Has Been Won
This is the most important point of all.  The good news about spiritual warfare is that this war has already been won for us.  It would be wrong to think about Satan and God as two equally matched opposing forces.  They are not.  Satan is a powerful creature, but he is a creature.  God is the Creator. Jesus Christ has defeated the Devil definitively on the Cross.  If we stay close to Him, we will share in His victory.

The Choice is Yours
If God loves us and wants us to be with Him in heaven, and if Christ has already won victory over the Devil, then why do we have to fight?  Why does God allow Satan to have any influence over us at all? God loves us, and because of that love He made us with free will.  This freedom to choose is what allows us to love God.  But that same freedom makes it possible for us to reject Him.  God won't force us into heaven, but neither will God allow Satan to force you into hell.

God will not permit Satan to violate your free will (read the book of Job).  You have the choice between God and Satan.

Keep Fighting!
If you feel like you are struggling at times, don't despair!  That's to be expected. It can feel frustrating to repent of your sins, go to confession, and continue to struggle with the same sin.  But that struggle is good!  It means you are still in the fight!  It's when you stop struggling against sin and the Devil that you need to worry.

As I said above, Jesus Christ has already won this war.  With Christ as our commander, the only way we can possibly lose it to give up. So don't give up!  When you take a spiritual hit and fall into sin, get to confession, and get back in the fight.  Compete well for the faith!

Friday, September 9, 2016

A Christ Without Forgiveness is No Christ at All


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Rembrandt's depiction of the Prodigal Son
All of the readings in this Sunday's Mass underscore one basic theme -- God forgives.  You'd have to be blind to miss the message.

In the reading from Exodus, we see the Israelites just after God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Almost immediately, they turn from God to worship false idols.  And God forgives them.

In the reading from St. Paul's first letter to Timothy, Paul recounts how he was a blasphemer and a persecutor, the foremost of sinners.  And yet in Christ he has been forgiven, even to the point of being one of His Apostles.

And in our gospel reading from Luke, we find perhaps the greatest story of forgiveness, the parable of the Prodigal Son.  In this story Jesus tells as a metaphor of how eager God is to forgive the repentant sinner, the father runs to his son, embraces him and kisses him.  He throws a huge party!  God doesn't just forgive, He forgives lavishly, and with abundance.

You'd have to be blind to miss the message.  Sadly, so many are blind.  So many present a Christianity without redemption, a God without mercy, a Christ without forgiveness.  Such a Christ is no Christ at all.

Earlier this week I had a brief exchange with a woman who had given Christianity a try and found it left a bad taste in her mouth.  She's not Catholic, and I did not ask the denomination of the church she attended.  But she didn't find Christ there, because she didn't find forgiveness.  

She is a single mother.  Her status as a single mother marked her as a sinner, and that is how the people in that church viewed her.  They condemned her and made her feel like a person beyond redemption.  As she put it, "They condemned me for what I had done. But I couldn't go back and not do it.  I couldn't ever not have my child. So I knew I'd never be accepted there."

I tried my best to assure this young woman that what she heard preached in that church was not Christianity, but something else.  Let's go ahead and call it what it is -- heresy.  Christ came for one reason and one reason only -- to reconcile sinners to the Father.  He offers forgiveness.  A Christ without forgiveness is no Christ at all.

What would be the Catholic response to such a young mother? “Yes, you have sinned in the past. So have I. So has everyone. Sex outside of marriage is a sin. It’s no doubt one of many you have committed. But having that baby is not a sin. Being a mother is not a sin. These are good things, and occasions for grace! God offers forgiveness and mercy for the sins of our past. He also offers us strength to help us avoid sins in the future. He loves you. He wants to heal you and help you. He wants to show you the beautiful saint He intends for you to be. The Church is where you will find God’s mercy. The Church is where you will grow in grace. The Church is your home.”

If you are staying away from the Church because you are afraid you will be condemned for the actions of your past, have no fear.  The Church is full of sinners -- some of them reformed, many still working on it.  The one thing every Christian has in common is the realization that we are sinners in need of forgiveness.

But we must also realize, and trust in the fact, that God is eager to forgive.  How many Catholics avoid the confessional because they are afraid to face condemnation?  In fact, what is offered in the sacrament is the opposite of condemnation -- it is redemption!  We go to confession in order to turn the sorrow we feel over our sins into rejoicing!  Jesus tells us, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance" (Lk 5:7).

The only way God won't forgive us if it we don't ask.  The only limit on His mercy is our free will.  He wants to bring us to Himself, but He will not force us.

So if you feel shame over your sin, let it draw you to the Church, not away from it!  For it is in the Catholic Church were you will encounter Christ -- the real Christ -- who longs to draw you up to Himself on the cross, where He bears each one of your sins, so that you may rise to a new and holy life in Him.