Friday, February 26, 2016

Repentance and Free Choice

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"I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!"  Jesus repeats this dire warning twice in this Sunday's gospel reading (Lk 13:1-9).  Isn't this a bit doom-and-gloom for gentle Jesus?  Doesn't the psalmist remind us that "the Lord is kind and merciful" (Ps 104)?

While there may appear to be a conflict between justice and mercy from our human perspective, it is not so with God.  It has been said that "justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice is licentiousness."  God is neither cruel nor licentious.  His mercy and justice work in perfect harmony.

Jesus' call for repentance is a form of mercy.  Most dictionaries define "repent" as "to feel regret or remorse."  The word has negative connotations in our society that tells us to live life "with no regrets."  However, the original meaning of the word, as it is used in the Bible, simply means "to change one's mind,"  or literally, "to turn."

What are we turning from?  And what are we turning to?  Before we answer that, we should take a step back and ask, how is it that we can turn at all?

The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27).  That means many things, one of which is that God made us with free will, and respects our free will.  The Catechism teaches, "God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions" (CCC 1730).  Or, as St. Irenaeus put it, "Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts."

Free will gives us the capacity to choose, and also makes us responsible for our choices.  If we were like the irrational creatures, we wouldn't have to worry about hell, but neither could we be worthy of the glory of heaven.  It is our free will that allows us to become saints, because it is only in freedom that one can love.  By giving us freedom, God has given us the capacity to love.

We can choose to do good or evil.  We can choose to act in accord with God's will, or against it.  We can choose heaven or hell.  While few, if any, would choose hell outright, many may choose it by their actions.  We can choose to reject God implicitly, even while claiming to have faith in Him.

Think of it this way.  Let's say there is someone you call your best friend.  You want them to be your best friend, and believe sincerely that they are.  But you never call them.  You don't spend any time with them, except maybe for an hour a week (but even then you are thinking about other things you'd rather be doing).  You don't bother getting to know anything about them.  You spend your days and hours in other pursuits and don't really think about your "best friend" all that much.  Is that person truly your best friend?

Far too many people view their relationship with God in this way.  They express belief in God.  They may even go to Mass on Sundays.  They know that God is loving and merciful and so presume that God will make sure they go to heaven in the end.  But otherwise they don't give God a second thought.  They live their lives largely as if God didn't exist.

This is the sin of presumption (CCC 2092).  If we presume that God will grant His forgiveness without any conversion on our part, it amounts to saying, "God will save us no matter what we do."  But this would be a violation of our free will.  This is something God will never do.  God is Love.  Love asks, it does not coerce.  Love invites, it does not invade.  Love draws us by attraction, not by force.

Jesus' call for repentance is an act of mercy.  He beckons us away from our sins and towards the God who is the source of all our love and joy.  To repent, is to turn towards God and away from whatever we are putting ahead of Him in our lives.  This is not always a 180° turnPerhaps we are only a few degrees off course; but as any navigator knows the longer you continue down the wrong path, the father you are from your goal.  Repentance involves a daily reorientation towards God.

Jesus warns us of the dire consequences of unrepentance not to scare us, but to save us.  He wants us to turn towards Him in freedom, and so gives us knowledge of the consequences of our acceptance or rejection of God's love.  Jesus does not want the fate of those who perished to be ours.  He offers us eternal life.  It is up to us to accept the offer

“He who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge, but He does not justify you without you willing it.”

-St. Augustine, Sermon 169, 13

Monday, February 22, 2016

Is there a "Sunday Exception" during Lent?

Yesterday morning, my son, who gave up meat for Lent, asked for sausage for breakfast.  Why?  Because it was a Sunday, and he was allowing himself to enjoy what he was sacrificing for Lent.  But is this a real thing?  Is there a so-called "Sunday exception" during Lent?

Why it makes sense.
One idea behind the "Sunday exception" is that Sundays are not really part of Lent.  The thinking goes like this. We speak of the "40 Days of Lent."  If you look at the calendar, between Ash Wednesday and Easter is actually 46 days.  But if you don't count the Sundays, you get back down to 40.  Ergo, Sundays are not part of Lent.

Another idea is that Sundays are days of celebration.  Each and every Sunday, even during Lent, is like a "little Easter."  So it would be inappropriate to fast on a Sunday.

Why it doesn't make sense.
OK, that "40 days" thing doesn't quite add up, because technically Lent ends on Holy Thursday, when the Easter Triduum begins (though our fasting continues up till the Vigil on Holy Saturday).  So if you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, it's only 43 days.  Then if you took out all the Sundays, you are left with 37 days.  The reality is that the "40 days of Lent" is a close approximation.

Plus it is wrong to say that Sundays are "not really part of Lent."  They are.  We call them "the First Sunday of Lent," and so forth.  They are most definitely part of Lent, which is why we include all sorts of Lenten practices on Sundays, such as the use of purple as a liturgical color, the absence of the Gloria and Alleluia, and so on.

Also, the notion of not continuing your Lenten fast on Sundays seems to be very new.  Granted, I have not researched this idea thoroughly, but in the past when the Church's Lenten practices involved eating a nearly Vegan diet for the entirety of Lent, I can recall reading nothing to indicate that Sundays were considered "days off."  Moreover, none of the older Catholics I speak to remember Sundays being considered this way in the past.  Even when I went through RCIA myself in the year 2000 nothing was ever mentioned about Sundays being an exception to our Lenten practices.  This idea seems to be a rather new phenomenon.

So what should I do?
Whatever you choose.  Remember, all the Church requires of us during Lent is to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent.  None of this affects Sundays.  We are strongly encouraged to take on additional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving during the Lenten season.  But how we do those things and to what extent are left up to the individual.

Deciding to give up something during Lent at all is purely voluntary.  You are free to set the conditions of your Lenten sacrifice.  This means that if you decide to allow yourself to enjoy whatever it is you have given up for Lent on Sundays, you may do so.  You don't need anyone's permission.  Likewise, if you want to maintain your Lenten sacrifice straight through, with no break on Sundays, that is perfectly fine, as well.  There is no "right" or "wrong" here.

Before I wrap up this post, I should mention that there is a specific exemption in Canon Law regarding solemnities and days of penance. According to Canon 1250, penitential days include all Fridays during the year, and the season of Lent.  According to Canon 1251, if a solemnity falls on a Friday, the normal practice of abstaining from meat is not observed.  Note, however, that this is regarding Fridays during the year generally.  The canon does not say anything specifically about other days during the season of Lent.  In an answer to a question on EWTN, Fr. Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university, remarked that since Fridays in Lent are especially important, "it is customary in many places to observe abstinence even when a solemnity coincides with a Friday during this season."  My observance in our neck of the woods is that when a solemnity falls on a Friday during Lent (as sometimes happens with the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19) that abstinence is not customarily observed.  Note, also, that an ordinary feast may be celebrated as a solemnity in a particular location if it is the feast of the patron of a parish or diocese.  That means that in the Diocese of Charlotte, the feast of St. Patrick (March 17) is celebrated as a solemnity.

In either case, it would seem fitting -- if the individual so chooses -- to allow one's self to enjoy whatever one has given up for Lent on a solemnity whatever day of the week it happens to fall on.  Again, keep in mind that the decision to give up something for Lent is an individual one, and the individual may set the parameters.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Power of Prayer

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The Transfiguration of the Lord
We were blessed this past week to be visited by two sisters from the Dominicans of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.  Sister Joseph Andrew, their vocations director, had many good things to say, but the thing she stressed most emphatically was the importance of prayer.

A student asked the question, "What if we choose the wrong vocation?"  To which Sister replied, "That's only possible if you are not praying about it.  If you really pray about your vocation, it's impossible to choose wrong."

Then Sister told of her own discernment process.  She spoke about how from a young age she had a desire to find out what God wanted her to do with her life, and then to do it!  So she prayed about it every day.  How often and how fervently have you prayed that God might show you your purpose in life?

Prayer is one of the three activities that the Church especially highlights during the season of Lent (along with fasting and almsgiving).  This is not because prayer is a particularly "Lenten" thing to do but because it is so fundamentally necessary to our lives as Christians.

As Jesus shows us in this Sunday's gospel, we discover who we truly are only through prayer.  It was while Jesus was praying that "His face changed in appearance and His clothing became dazzlingly white" (Lk 9:29). While praying, Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus and "spoke of His exodus that He was going to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Lk 9:31) -- in other words, His passion, death and resurrection.  It is in prayer that Jesus shows His true face.  It is in prayer that Jesus' mission is revealed.

So it is with us.  It is only in prayer that we will discover the person God intends for us to be, and we will then know our mission in life.  This is because it is by prayer that we come to know God and learn to recognize the image of God in us.

But we should not expect to find a neon sign pointing our brightly the direction that we are to go.  God is not that obvious.  Discovering our vocation (and thereby discovering ourselves) is a process that requires trust in God's divine providence.  In our first reading, Abram was promised by God that his descendants would be given the land of Israel (Gn 15:17-18).  But Abram (later Abraham) had to wait decades before that promise was fulfilled.  Meanwhile he trusted in God.

That trust can be one of the most difficult aspects of our relationship with God to achieve -- but it can be achieved through prayer.  Prayer is the way that we grow in our relationship with God.  It is very hard to trust someone that you do not have a good relationship with.  By persisting in prayer, and seeking to do God's will, you will come to know Him intimately.

One other thing that Sister Joseph Andrew mentioned was how those who discover and live out their vocation are free of fear.  She recalled one of her favorite saints, St. John Paul the Great, saying, "Be not afraid!"  Jesus said those same words, as did the angel Gabriel to Mary.  Our psalm says, "The Lord is my life’s refuge;of whom should I be afraid?" (Ps 27:1).  When you have come to trust deeply in God's providence for you -- when you can truly say that He is your life's refuge -- then you will have no reason to fear anyone or anything.  You will know only His peace.

Persist in prayer.  Make it a habit.  Make it something you cannot get through your day without.  Ask God to show you your vocation in life and then pursue it fearlessly.  This is how you discover your true self.  This is how you become a saint.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Devil's Trick

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We begin our Lenten journey with Christ in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days in preparation for His public ministry.  Unlike our modern discipline of fasting, which allows us to take "one full meal and up to two smaller meals which together don't equal one full meal," the gospel tells us that Jesus "ate nothing during those days, and when they were over He was hungry" (Lk 4:2).  No kidding.

It was in this state of extreme hunger that Jesus is tempted by the devil.  But Christ is not tempted with what you or I might consider "temptations of the devil."  The devil tempts Christ with bread.

"If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread," the devil suggests.  It is easy to imagine how someone who has not eaten anything for 40 days might be tempted at the prospect of a fresh baked loaf of bread -- and if Jesus were to transform a stone into bread, there is no doubt it would be the best bread you have ever tasted.  Recall that at the wedding in Cana, when Jesus transformed water into wine, the guests all remarked on how the best wine was saved till last!  But Jesus resists the temptation, telling the devil, "Man does not live on bread alone."

Jesus 1; devil 0.

But have you ever stopped to wonder why Jesus couldn't do what the devil suggests?  There is nothing sinful about bread.  Bread is a good thing -- so good, in fact, that Jesus chooses bread as the matter for the sacrament of His Body in the Eucharist.  So why couldn't Jesus turn the stones into bread and satisfy His hunger?

When we consider the other things that the devil temps Jesus with, we find that they also involve good things.  He offers to give Christ power over all the kingdoms of the earth.  Wouldn't it be good if Jesus ruled over all nations?  He suggests that Christ manifest His divinity by casting Himself over a cliff so that angels could rescue Him.  And indeed, later in His ministry, Jesus does manifest His divinity, in many ways, including overcoming death.

The devil tempts Christ primarily with good things and this is also how he tempts us.  Every sin has some good aspect about it.  If there were ever a sin which was wholly evil, we would not be tempted by it.  There would be nothing about it to attract us because we all desire to do good.  Tempting us to seek a good improperly is an old trick of the devil's. This is how the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the garden.  He tricked them into eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Knowledge is a good thing, right? What could be wrong with just a little bite?

Any sin you can name has a disordered good at its heart.  Lust, for example, involves a desire for another human person.  Human persons are good!  But lust desires the good in a disordered way, treating other people like objects for our pleasure.  The commandment against coveting your neighbor's wife is not because your neighbor's wife is bad.  I'm sure she's very nice.  But, like Adam and Eve eating from the tree, it is wrong to pursue a good which you are not meant to have.

Greed involves a desire for material possessions.  Again, material possessions are not bad in themselves.  God is the author of creation and all that He makes is good.  So material possessions are good things.  But when we value these things above people, or above God Himself, our desire for possessions becomes disordered.  We pursue a good in an improper way.

This is the nature of all evil, because evil itself is not a created thing.  Evil is a perversion or misuse of a good God has given us.  As St. Augustine put it, "What is that which we call evil but the absence of good?"

We often use the good that we are pursing (albeit wrongly) to justify our sinful actions.  Christ shows us a better way.  This Lent, take a look at your life and anything you may be doing or have done in the past that you knew was wrong, but felt justified in doing.  Are there thing that you know the Church teaches are immoral, but you have told yourself that they really are not that bad?  What is the good that you are seeking in these actions?  Are you seeking that good in an improper way?  Are you seeking a lesser good at the expense of a higher good?

Lent above all is a season of repentance.  It is an invitation extended by Christ and His Church to turn away from our sins, past or present, and turn back to the love of God.  We should never be satisfied with pursuing a lesser good, but settle for nothing less than that perfect good God has in mind for each of us.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

What Are You Gaining For Lent?

"What are you giving up for Lent?"  That's a question a lot of Catholics hear this time of year.  It's a good conversation starter.  But I think this question gives us the wrong outlook on the Lenten season.  Perhaps we'd be better served by asking What are you gaining for Lent?

What does the Church actually require us to give up during Lent?  Not much, as it turns out.  We are asked to abstain from meat on Fridays, and Ash Wednesday.  And we are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  That's it. Of course, Catholics are free to go beyond the minimum, and people generally select one or more other things -- chocolate, caffeine, Facebook -- to give up during Lent.  This is a good thing to do, but only if we keep in mind everything else Lent is about.

Lent has always been a season associated with three particular spiritual practices; prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Each of these involves much more than just "giving something up."

Our model for fasting is Jesus, who fasted for 40 days in the desert after His baptism, in preparation for His public ministry (Mt 4:1-11).  But why do we fast?  Eating is good and necessary to sustain life.  Fasting is not simply about giving up food.  It's about building up our spiritual discipline.  It's about learning to deny ourselves. Fasting reminds us that we don't need to obey our base passions. When my stomach growls, I can tell it no. Fasting helps us learn to master our desires.  Fasting also reminds us of our own mortality.  It reminds us of how dependent we are.  So you give up a little food, but you stand to gain spiritual discipline, strength of will, and the perspective needed to place God first in your life.  That's quite a trade off.

Whenever fasting is mentioned in the Bible, it is always in conjunction with prayer.  Prayer is what makes fasting a spiritual discipline and not a weight loss plan.  So how should you pray during Lent? My answer is a little more than you are praying now.  Spend some quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament, telling God what is on your heart, and then listen to what He may have to tell you in the silence.  Pray a rosary each day. Or why not start your day with Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours?  Or end it with Night Prayer?  You'll be praying in union with the whole Church, and how cool is that?  One of the best things you can do is to simply read the scriptures. Pick a book in the Bible that you want to know better and read a little every day during Lent. Another way to approach it is to read the daily Mass readings, which you can find on the USCCB web site.

Whatever form of prayer you decide upon, pick a time to do it each day and stick to your schedule.  If you want to improve your relationship with God, you need to talk with Him on a regular basis!  What you are giving up is a little time each day.  What you stand to gain is a more intimate relationship with God.

Almsgiving means giving money to the poor. College students don't always have a lot of money to give, but there are still ways you can help those in need.  You can give of your time and talent.  Come with us one Tuesday to help volunteer at the Community Table.  If Tuesdays don't work for you, contact them to see about another day to volunteer -- they need help throughout the week!  You can also contact the WCU Center for Service Learning for other volunteer opportunities to benefit those in need.

People can be poor in many ways.  Is your roommate feeling homesick?  Take her out for coffee.  Is your classmate depressed?  Invite her over for a movie night.  Is your friend stressed about an upcoming test?  Offer to stay up late with him to help him study.  Almsgiving is not just about writing a check to a charity.  It's about learning to hold on to things loosely -- this includes our treasure, time and talent -- so that we may be ready to give whenever we encounter someone in need.

When you practice almsgiving, you have to give up some of your hard earned cash, or valuable time; but what you gain is a generosity of spirit, and a heart that loves as Jesus loves.

The whole season of Lent is a penitential season.  Penance comes from repent which means "to turn." There are two Hebrew words that are translated as repent in the Old Testament.  One means "to return" and the other means "to feel sorrow."  The Greek word that gets translated as repent in the New Testament means "to change one's mind."  Put all those meanings together and you get an idea of what penance should involve.

Repenting involves turning away from sin -- which may indeed involve sorrow, if we are truly sorry for the wrongs we have done.  But it also involves turning toward God.  And that is where our focus should be.  When you repent, you give up on sin, but you gain the friendship of God.

Everything we give up during Lent is for the purpose of gaining something even greater.  So if you haven't decided yet what you are giving up for Lent this year, maybe you should think about what you would like to gain instead.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Not I, but the grace of God

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"God does not call the equipped; He equips the called."  I have no idea where that phrase originated, but it's one you hear often in ministry circles.  I've certainly found it to be true in my time as a campus minister.  Often I have felt unequipped for a situation only to find out later that I had precisely what was required.

"Equipped" can mean many things, of course.  It can refer to our talents and skills.  It can refer to personality traits, such as empathy, compassion, or being "a good listener."  Or it can refer to time -- many don't volunteer in their church or community because they don't think they have the time to devote to it.

But there is one way that everyone who feels called to serve the Church feels ill-equipped and that is holiness.  We think of priests, nuns and monks as holy people. (Maybe some of you even think of campus ministers as holy people, who knows?)  So when we take an honest look at ourselves and recognize our own sinfulness, we feel that we could never serve the Church like these people do. We're not holy enough to do God's work.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret.  No one is holy enough.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you ever meet anyone who thinks they are, you should run fast in the opposite direction.  I would further say that recognizing that you are not holy enough to serve Christ indicates that you are qualified, because one thing all good servants of Christ need to have is humility.  Humility is a necessary prerequisite to holiness.  Humility tells us that we need to rely on Christ and not ourselves.  Humility allows Jesus to do the heavy lifting for us, because we know we are not strong enough on our own.

Consider Isaiah in our first reading.  When Isaiah has a vision of God, he cries out, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips."  He recognizes his own sinfulness before God.  But then an angel touches Isaiah's lips with a burning ember (that must have hurt!) and says, "Your wickedness is removed; your sin purged."  Only then was Isaiah able to reply to God's call, "Here I am, send me!"  Isaiah knew he was not holy enough, but through God he became a great prophet.

Likewise in our second reading from 1 Cor 15:1-11, St. Paul refers to himself as "the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God."  St. Paul, before his conversion, was one of the most hardened persecutors of Christians, standing by as St. Stephen was martyred (Acts 8:1).  Even after his conversion, as one of the Apostles, he could write, "For I do not do the good  I want, but I do the evil I do not want" (Rom 7:19).  St. Paul was not holy enough, "But by the grace of God I am what I am."  He became one of the greatest saints of the Church.

Lastly, in our gospel reading we see Simon Peter being called by Jesus.  Simon's response to our Lord was like that of Isaiah -- he recognized his own sinfulness before God.  "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" (Lk 5:8).  But Jesus did not depart from him.  He saw Simon's humility as something which could be put to great service.  He told Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men" (Lk 5:10).  Simon Peter was not holy enough, but through the word of God became the head of the college of Apostles, our first Pope.

"Do not be afraid." Christ says the same words today to every young man considering the priesthood who does not feel holy enough; to every person considering the consecrated life who does not feel that they are as pious as they should be; to every young person considering marriage who does not feel "ready" for such commitment. Do not be afraid!

If you don't feel ready for whatever vocation God is calling you to, that's good!  You shouldn't! The world does not need husbands and wives who think they have it all together; it needs husbands and wives that are willing to rely on each other and on God for help.  The Church does not need bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, monks or friars who think that they are already saints.  The Church needs ministers who know that they are sinners.

This coming Wednesday millions of people will come to the Church to hear the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  It is a reminder of what we are without God -- mere dust and ashes.  This is what all of our efforts to "equip ourselves" to serve Him will amount to if we try to do it on our own.  Maybe you are doubting your vocational call because you don't feel as holy as you imagine priests need to be.  Maybe you are putting off going to confession until you can overcome that sin you've been struggling with.  Stop it. Stop doubting God's ability to heal you and draw you to Himself.  Listen to Jesus' words. "Do not be afraid."

God doesn't call people who are already saints.  God calls sinners that He can transform into saints, and thereby glorify Him.  Let us be humble enough to accept the call God has for each of us, so that we might say, like St. Paul, "Not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Cor 15:10).