Sunday, January 29, 2012

How To Offend a Catholic

Offending Catholics is very easy.  All you have to do is preach the truth on a topic that the secular world considers “hot button issues” and half of them are probably offended.  Catholics like to be left alone, and they like to take the easy path when it comes to "practicing their faith":  come to Mass, put their dollar bill in the collection, listen to a homily that makes them feel good, and then go home because they have fulfilled their Sunday obligation.  But don’t you dare challenge them or ask them to go above and beyond that hour on Sunday!  This is the story of a homily that I delivered three times today about a fundamental truth that managed to offend some of my people (some even walked out of church), and in full disclosure, as a priest/homilist I wanted to offend them.  Here goes:

“The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority…” (Mark 1:22)

When I was in the seminary, I had professors who would command a room when they taught.  As someone aspiring to be a priest and a teacher of the faith, I would be in awe at how they taught with such passion and authority.  This is no doubt a gift.  We all had teachers and professors who overwhelmed us with their knowledge and, of course, we had some teachers that underwhelmed us with the way they imparted knowledge.  To their students they sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons.  The latter is where we find the Jewish people in today’s gospel.  For too long they had been underwhelmed by the scribes who were very knowledgeable but did not get their message across because they did not teach “with authority.”  Enter Jesus who probably commanded that room simply by his presence.  He teaches them with divine authority and expels unclean spirits with the same authority.

Believe it or not, Jesus passes on this same authority to each and every one of us through the Holy Spirit.  We have been baptized and confirmed in this Spirit to teach and spread our faith, this Good News, with the same authority that Jesus had.  We must be bold like our Lord and proclaim our beliefs with conviction. But unfortunately we have been so timid in using this authority that the Lord has passed on to us, that our Catholic faith is being threatened and we aren’t standing up as a people to protest.

On Friday, the Archbishop sent each of his priests a letter that he wanted to be read this Sunday from all pulpits.  I want to share this letter with you now.

(At this point in the homily, I read the Archbishop’s letter on the HHS mandate that all health insurers, including Catholic ones, had one year to comply with a mandate and start offering contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as part of our health plans even if it violated our beliefs.  If you have not read the letter, you can read it here:  As I read the letter I could tell the people, for the most part, were bored out of their minds.  So when I finished, I continued with one simple question:)

How many of you were aware of the mandate that the Archbishop mentions in the letter? (At all three Masses, only about a dozen or so people raised their hands and I preached to well over 1500 people today.)  You see that’s the problem!  As Catholics, we don’t take the time to notice that our faith quite literally is under attack.  Even the Pope who lives thousands of miles away has noticed this from afar.  On January 19th, when speaking to bishops from our country he said:  “it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness...”  The Pope is in Rome and he sees what is happening to our country:  our religious liberties are being trampled upon, as Catholics we are being pushed around:  and we’re letting people do this to us.  Catholics make up a quarter of this nation’s population.  Don’t you think that if we rose up as one Church, with one voice, we can defeat this mandate?  Of course we can.  But no.  This is not what Catholics do.  Most Catholics live the shadows and don’t raise their voices when they confront someone who may disagree with our beliefs because quite simply, we don’t want to offend someone.  Well my friends, I’m here to tell you today, that that kind of Catholicism just won’t cut it anymore, so I have two words for you:  OFFEND SOMEBODY!  If we cannot uphold the faith of our Church and the truth passed on to us by our Lord then we don’t deserve to be called Christians.  Everywhere I look in the media, I hear about Evangelicals doing this and the Evangelical vote swaying elections and the Evangelical movement making noise.  Why aren’t Catholics making noise?  Why aren’t we allowing our voices to be heard?  Why are we so ashamed of this beautiful, rich, and living faith that we claim to profess every Sunday at Mass? 

Let’s put it in very simple terms:  our Catholic faith and what we do for others as a Catholic people is under attack.  If this mandate were to be enacted, we would not be able to provide insurance to our teachers in our Catholic schools, our doctors and nurses in our Catholic hospitals would go uninsured as well along with all the employees of Catholic Charities.  Catholic hospitals comprise of 1/5 of all the hospital in the U.S., and the biggest charitable organization in this country is Catholic Charities.  The only, tiny exception that the government gave us to prevent us from having to comply with this mandate is if we only hired Catholic workers and only ministered to Catholic people.  My friends, not even Jesus Christ would be able to comply with this because he ministered to all.  When someone hungry shows up to a Catholic Charities soup kitchen, we don’t ask for a Catholic ID.  We give them food.  No questions asked.

So as you can see, how we serve the people around us, not just Catholics, is being threatened.   We must use the authority that Jesus gave us through baptism and confirmation to let our voices be heard.  Let me put it another way that may be simpler to understand:  WE HAVE TO STOP BEING SUCH WIMPS WHEN IT COMES TO OUR FAITH!!!!!!!  It’s time for a new generation of Catholics to rise up and turn the tide in this country towards a culture of life.  I’m tired of 1-hour a week Catholics.  I’m tired of feeling like the only person shouting the truth from the mountaintop without anyone behind me.  We have reached a critical crossroads when it comes to Catholicism in America, and we must rise up!  Doing what you are currently doing now is not good enough.  Our Lord deserves better.  Our holy Church deserves better.  And if I offended anybody during the preaching of this homily….GOOD!  At least it struck a nerve.  At least I made you think.  Jesus did not spend his public life preaching wondering who he was pleasing and who he was offending.  He preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God with divine authority, and he ended up on a cross.  It’s time for a new breed of Catholics.  The Holy Father also emphasized this to the U.S. bishops:  “Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed…with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.”  There you have it.  If you don’t like the way I presented it, here it is straight from the mouth of the Successor of Saint Peter.  We need to pray for unity among us.  We need to pray for this assault on our religious liberty to subside.  We need to pray for a conversion of hearts in our nation so that all people of all faiths and creeds may be respected.  But more importantly, we need to pray that we as a Catholic people may finally grow a backbone and become a force to be reckoned with in America!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Why I Love Jesus AND Love the Church

“They said to him, "Rabbi where are you staying?"  He said to them, "Come, and you will see." (John 1:38-39)
This past week a young man posted a video on the Internet that has gotten over 11.5 million hits in just 6 days.  The video was titled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.”  (If you want, you can check it out here:  At first I didn’t pay attention to this viral sensation, but then former students of mine began to post it on Facebook with positive comments as if they just had some major epiphany.   This got me curious, and I saw the 4-minute video.  The young man is well intentioned as he professes his love for Jesus and how entering into a personal relationship with the Lord totally transformed his life.  Great witness, seems genuinely authentic, and I agree with a lot of the points he makes, but he veers terribly off course when he drops the word “hate” on us which he does in the title of the video.  His premise is that Jesus came to abolish religion.  Slight problem though, Jesus himself said in the Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  Ok, then.  Jesus, as the young man correctly points out, did have a problem with the religious establishment of the time who did not practice what they preached which is why Jesus comes to establish a new covenant based on God’s mercy and love and ratified by the blood of his cross.
The thing with the video is that this very gifted young man could have used this platform to win over a host of followers to Christ, but unfortunately he has to go and use the word hate when it comes to religion.  Without religion, would he or any of us know who this Jesus is?  Just saying .  But when he really starts to lose me is around the 1:16 mark of the video when he excuses himself and says: “Now I ain’t judging.”  Pretty tough statement to back up when you’re only a quarter of the way through and you’ve already judged Republicans, big churches, people who condemn divorced single moms, and the church’s lack of compassion for the hungry:  “Why does [religion] build huge churches but fail to feed the poor?”  If he did his research he would probably be shocked to know that the Catholic Church feeds millions around the world and according to a list of 200 charitable organizations that Forbes compiled in 2005, if you add up the Catholic charities on the list, these Catholic organizations raised $5.5 billion (yes that’s billion with a “b”) for their charitable endeavors.  The “big churches” have been built, and yes the way they were built in centuries past were dubious to say the least, but another blogger’s reaction to this part of the video said it best:  “Go to a man in poverty who attends a beautiful church and offer to tear down the beauty that surrounds him, to melt down the gold so he can buy more food. You will never see a man more insulted.”
Halfway through, the young man professes that he loves the church to which I said “Whoa! You just contradicted your entire video!”  He unfortunately reduces religion to a set of rules that Jesus hated and came to abolish, but the reality is that Jesus told his disciples “If you love me, keep my commandment. (John 14:15).”  Religion shouldn’t be reduced to a list of rules of “thou shall not’s.”  What this young man proposes is like going to the doctor and not following his prescriptions to make us well.   The truth of the matter is that Jesus did found a Church.  He entrusted it to Peter:  “Upon this rock I will build my church (Matthew 16:18-19).”  And he told his disciples at the Last Supper:  “Do this in memory of me.”  So wherever two or more are gathered in his name, that is where Jesus will be.  That sounds a lot like Church to me and diffuses the notion that religion is a man made invention as this young man claims.  We are a holy Church, the bride of Christ, made up of sinful people.  The young man correctly points out that the Church shouldn’t be “a museum for good people but a hospital for the broken.”  This causes him to wonder that if Jesus walked into Church, would we even let him in?  Well…………..we kind of already did.  In fact, he’s already here.  He was here before you arrived and will be here when you leave because when Jesus said “do this in memory of me” he left us the gift of his presence that comes from the hands of a priest:  the Eucharist.  But let’s not stop there.  Do you want to see Christ?  Look at your brother and your sister sitting next to you.  Do you want to take a picture of Christ?  I’ll be consecrating the bread and the wine in a few minutes that will become the Real Presence of Christ in his body and blood. It’s easy to judge the Church, and believe me as a loyal son and priest of Holy Mother Church, I’ll be the first to admit that we have made mistakes and even grave mistakes especially in the last 10 years, but her beauty, her majesty does not lie in the beauty of this building or in her glorious basilicas and cathedrals, her beauty lies in the hearts of her holy people.
So why did this video catch fire?  Why did so many young people press “like” on YouTube and Facebook?  Well, simply put, the premise implies that you can love Jesus without any of the responsibilities that go with it (i.e. religion).  It’s an old oxymoron:  “I’m a spiritual person, but not a religious person.”  Where else do you get your spiritual groove on if it isn’t in a church?  Where else do you go to come to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is if it isn’t within a community of believers?  Many young people want an out, an excuse, a justification for their personal faith or lack there of.   Yes Jesus loves us despite our sins, but eventually we have to realize that just because we say we’re Christian, it doesn’t give us free license to follow Jesus “our way.”  He showed us THE WAY.  He left us the gift of the Church, and yes, as the young man concludes, Jesus did say on the cross “It is finished,” but contrary to what this young preacher says, the work of the kingdom isn’t done.  Jesus did perfectly finish His work here on our earth, but he established the Church to continue his mission, to continue his works, and to ultimately get it done and bring it to perfection:  “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel (Mark 16:15).”  His work is finished.  Ours was just getting started.  This video appeals to young people because as I said last week in my homily, we’re always searching for answers and this applies in a very unique way to our youth.  Many of them are searching for love, peace, and the truth.  This is why Jesus tells John’s disciples in today’s gospel to “come and see.”  If you want answers, come to Jesus.  If many young people saw past their pre-conceived notions of the Church, and saw what I see, or saw what the Holy Father saw last summer when he gazed out across an airfield and saw a million young people praising Jesus, these young people would fall in love with the Church as I have because it is here that we experience the power of the living body of Christ.
Saying we love Jesus but hating religion goes against what our Lord taught us and will ultimately lead us to moral relativism because we will have no moral compass to guide us in our journey.  Jesus left us the apostles, he founded the priesthood, he blessed many saints along our 2000 year journey for us to see how beautiful this Church can be.  I love Jesus, and I love the gift that he left us in his bride, the Church.  I laid down my life for Him as I laid down my life for Her.  I love them both so much that I will not cease preaching the gospel and preaching the truth and doing the good work of our Church until our mission it is actually DONE!  Jesus said he was finished, but we’re just getting warmed up.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Gazing Up At the Stars

"We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage." (Matthew 2:2)
When I was a child, our family would spend our summer weekends in the Florida Keys.  The night sky is a lot clearer down south than it is here in the city.  At night, I would go over by the water and just gaze up at the numerous stars up in the sky.  I was always fascinated by outer space.  I was a Star Trek and Star Wars fan.  I had a small telescope.  I still remember when Haley's Comet made its pass by our small planet.  I was captivated by the possibilities of what laid beyond "the surly bonds of Earth."  Since I was a child, I would always look for the brightest star in the sky and assume that was the star the Jesus was born under--the same star the Magi saw at its rising and followed the Bethlehem.  What must have gone through these wise mens' minds when they saw this star appear?
The Feast of the Epiphany used to be a pretty big deal.  It still is in the Church, but not so much in the world.  Today we celebrate, as the preface of the Mass says, the revelation of "the mystery of our salvation in Christ as a light for the nations."  Jesus did not come to just save the Jews, but to save the entire world.  You see all of Judea should have been at Mary and Joseph's front door waiting to do this child homage.  The innkeeper that turned them away should have offered them his own home.  This was the child that all of Israel had been waiting for, yet, apart from the shepherds, the only ones that came to do him homage were three Gentile strangers from the East.  Pope Benedict pointed out in his Epiphany homily that with the Magi's journey from the East towards Christ, humanity also begins its pilgrimage towards its Redeemer.  While the response may have been slow at first, many nations would soon come to recognize Christ as their Messiah and King as we do today.  Like the Magi, our hearts are constantly searching.  Searching for answers to great mysteries.  This is why we have constantly gazed up at the stars because we long to know the great unknown.  What lies beyond that which is around us?  Only God could properly satisfy the curiousity he himself placed in our hearts.  The Magi had the restless hearts that St. Augustine spoke about that could only be satisfied by the presence of God.  That is why they prostrated themselves before the Child.  They were in the presence of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  In concluding his homily on Friday, the Holy Father in a stroke of genius turns the tables a bit on this restless heart analogy:  "But not only are we restless for God: God’s heart is restless for us. God is waiting for us. He is looking for us. He knows no rest either, until he finds us. God’s heart is restless, and that is why he set out on the path towards us – to Bethlehem, to Calvary, from Jerusalem to Galilee and on to the very ends of the earth."  And this unrest that lies in the heart of God is passed on to us so that we may bring the light of his presence to all the world.
Today, like the Magi, we are searching for something that will bring us fulfillment, contentment, joy and peace.  Our search sometimes leads us down wrong paths, but we ultimately come back here, to this manger, to this altar, to this church in order to find that which our hearts truly long for.  A world filled with darkness has been flooded by God's radiant light.  Stargazing is fun, but like those first astronaut pioneers that ventured past our orbit 50 years ago, there comes a time when we must stop gazing and start exploring what lies beyond.  We have spent two weeks gazing upon this glorious scene of the manger.  Now it is time for us to stop gazing and to start exploring what lies in the heart of God.