Friday, October 28, 2016

Seeking Jesus

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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This Sunday's gospel (Lk 19:1-10) tells the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who seeks Jesus.  Tax collectors, as I mentioned last week, are portrayed in the gospels as examples of sinful people. They were Jews who worked for the Roman government, so were viewed as colluding with the enemy. They collected money for the Roman empire, but rather than receive a salary, their income came from whatever extra coinage they were able to extrude from their fellow Israelites. So they were also viewed as swindlers and thieves.  Zacchaeus, as the gospel points out, is no ordinary tax collector. He is the chief tax collector and "a wealthy man," presumably because he was particularly adept at squeezing money out of those he collected from.

No wonder "people began to grumble" when Jesus went to dine at his house. He was a notorious sinner. The gospels are full of examples of Jesus, who came to reconcile sinners to God, associating with people that the "righteous" Jewish religious class would never go near. Of course Jesus doesn't do so to condone the sinful actions of anyone. Rather He does so in order to liberate them from their sins.  

Zacchaeus is transformed during his encounter with Jesus. He vows to give half of his wealth to the poor. He promises to repay anyone he has extorted four times over. He seeks to make amends for his sinful ways.  

The most important thing to note about Zacchaeus is not his sinful past, nor even his repentance (though that is important). The most important thing about Zacchaeus is that he sought Jesus. For whatever reason, he is drawn Christ.  Here is one who can redeem him from his sins. He sees in Christ a way out of darkness and into the light. And so he seeks Jesus.

Zacchaeus' willingness to repent of his sins leads Jesus to say, "Today salvation has come to this house." But before Zacchaeus could come to that point, he had to do something else that is so simple we might overlook it. The gospel tells us that Zacchaeus was "short in stature" (Lk 19:3). He physically could not see Jesus over the heads of the crowd.  But Zacchaeus did not let this physical obstacle overcome him. He climbed a tree, so that he could see Jesus better. This is what catches Jesus' attention, this faith that would lead a sinful tax collector to the top of a sycamore tree.

Do you, like Zacchaeus, have things in your life that are keeping you from seeing Christ?  When we think about things that are keeping us from Jesus, chances are we think a lot about our own personal sin -- as well we should. Sinful habits can indeed serve as impediments to a good relationship with Christ. We need to repent of these things. 

But notice when Zacchaeus repents of his sinful ways, he has already encountered Christ. In fact, it is that encounter with Christ which leads to his repentance. If we think we need to eliminate all sin from our lives before Christ can come to us, then we have it backwards. Jesus wants to come to us precisely to help us repent from our sins.

But are there practical obstacles that are keeping us from seeing Jesus? Are there basic things we need to do to overcome those obstacles? Zacchaeus was seeking to see Jesus and did some very practical things toward that end. First, he went to where Jesus was. Then, finding he was too short to see over the crowd, he did something about it. He climbed a tree. 

What are you doing to find Jesus? Are you going to where He is? Are you attending Mass? Are you reading the scriptures, especially the gospels? Are you praying? Are you participating in the Christian community? Are you seeking Christ in the faces of the poor? Are you visiting the sick? Are you feeding the hungry?

Perhaps, like Zacchaeus, there are some practical things in your life that are keeping you from seeing Jesus. Do you have to work on Sunday during the time we have Mass on campus? Do you not read the scripture because you don't own a Bible? Do you not feed the hungry because you have class on the afternoon we volunteer at Community Table? Do you not pray because you are "too busy?" These are all real, practical obstacles. The question is, what are you going to do about them? Zacchaeus didn't give up and go home because he was too short. He climbed a tree.

As you think about how you might overcome any obstacle in your life keeping you from seeing Jesus (material or spiritual), consider this: Zacchaeus is not the only one doing the seeking in this gospel. The final verse in our reading is, "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost" (Lk 19:10). In our relationship with God, it is first and foremost He who seeks for us. He sees us before we see Him. We seek to know Christ; He already knows us perfectly.

Let this be a great comfort to any who are seeking Jesus. The one you seek is seeking you, as well. He is not far away. He is very close, waiting and wanting to be found.

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.