Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hedonism and the Narrow Gate

“Strive to enter through the narrow door.”  (Luke 13:24)
Hedonism: the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life.

Last week, I unloaded a big word on you that I’ve never used before as I described the attitudes of Jesus’ times compared to ours and noted that not much has changed over the last 2000 years.  The big word was “hedonism.”  I used it as an addition to the two other deceiving ideologies that our popes have warned us about: relativism and secularism.  A couple of weeks ago, my father and I were talking about many of the themes that I have been mentioning in my homilies over the last few weeks.  We talked about how the world is deceiving Christians everywhere into living a lifestyle that goes totally against all of our basic and intrinsic values.  My father wisely noted that what is deceiving young people today and all Christians in general is a hedonistic culture that seeks only to find pleasure no matter what the cost or the consequences that it may have in our relationship with others, our relationship with family and friends, and more importantly our relationship with God.  I found Webster’s definition for hedonism fascinating: “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life.”  Imagine that!  A doctrine!  Unfortunately, it has become a doctrine for so many: “if it feels good, do it.”  A shoe company has spent 30 years telling us to “just do it.”  So as a result of the prevailing hedonism that exists in our culture, we have people who consider themselves Catholic getting swept up in this “do what feels good” mentality.  Young people who were raised Catholic see no problem going from party to party getting drunk to the point that they can’t remember where they actually were the night before.  Young Catholic couples see no problem engaging in pre-marital sex just because “it feels right” or “it’s the right time,” or my favorite “because we love each other.”  And then either they break up to engage in this behavior with someone else, or they go further in their relationship because they’ve achieved a level of intimacy that is reserved exclusively for the sacrament of Holy Matrimony and have no problem living together “because it’s convenient.”  I’m just talking about young people here.  What gets me is the parents who profess to be uber-Catholic who look the other way and allow this behavior to go on “because it makes my children happy” and of course we don’t want our children to be happy, but at what cost?

Today Jesus tells us that we must strive to enter through the narrow gate.  Now Christ himself is the narrow gate because he is the only one that can lead us to true happiness and joy.  In the opening prayer of the Mass today, we implore our Heavenly Father to help us “that, amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found.”  So right there in our opening prayer we debunk the myth of hedonism, for true gladness can only be found in heaven.  Yes, there are many things that can make us happy in this world, but they should not be the “sole or chief good in our life.”  That place is only reserved for Christ.  Let me put it another way:  true joy is only fleeting if it is not rooted in Jesus Christ.  Everything else is a myth that the world is selling and that we shouldn’t be buying.  As I mentioned last week, as Catholics we must stand up to these false ideologies and grow a backbone especially if we have young people under our care.  We cannot expect to continue living a hedonistic lifestyle and expect to enter through that narrow gate like the people in the gospel.  My friends, these are challenging times for Catholics, but with Christ, who is the reason for our joy, there is no evil that the world can throw at us that we cannot handle:  even if it comes gift-wrapped in a package called “pleasure.”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Spiritual Warfare

“...let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.” (Heb 12:1-2)

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Luke 12:51)

There is so much happening in the world that troubles me.  The violence in Egypt against Christians, immigrants dying seeking a better life, the total disregard for traditional Christian family values and the re-definition of what a family and marriage actually is, the rampant secularism that seeks to eliminate God from the public square as if the Almighty were a nuisance...I could go on and on with this list.  These things that are taking place are not so different from what Jesus encountered in his time.  There was violence in the Middle East back then too, and the Romans lived and promoted a hedonistic lifestyle much like what we are seeing today.  This is why Jesus seeks to set the world on fire because the love of God transforms, consumes, and eradicates all that may alienate us from his Divine Love.  Of course, embracing this love and embracing the Kingdom of God involves ridding ourselves of sin and of all those pleasures we seek with disregard for how it affects others.  The words from the Letter to the Hebrews in the second reading are very direct: “let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.”  Sin clings to us a like a bad odor.  It infiltrates every part of our life and of our being until we feel like we no longer deserve and no longer can receive God’s forgiveness.  Yet he forgives us anyways and calls us to persevere through the journey of life with eyes fixed on him.

Living our Christianity to the fullest will also be a cause of division among families as Jesus says at the end of the gospel.  So many are rejected, even among family members, for how they practice their faith.  I’ve spoken about this before:  how we sometimes put adjectives in front of the word “Catholic” such as “devout Catholic” or “conservative Catholic” or my favorite “fanatical Catholic.”  Truth is the world sees people that faithfully go to Mass every day, say their rosaries, help the poor, and participate in the ministry of the Church as fanatical Catholics when really they’re just Catholic.  Even after 11 years of priesthood, I still am amused at how some people react to seeing a young man (humor me, please) walking around a shopping center wearing a Roman collar.  I am a sign of contradiction, a sign of division.  Yet Christ calls all of us to be a sign of division and to stand up for what we believe in.

I preached about this on Thursday on the Solemnity of the Assumption but wanted to expand on it a bit more this Sunday morning.  We are living in a time of spiritual warfare, if you will, where we have to take a stand.  We are surrounded by so much amorality that assaults our children, but we cannot be passive.  We must fight back.  Pope Francis implored the young people in Rio three weeks ago to be protagonists of history and to not get stuck in the back of the line and let history be written without Christian input:

Please, don’t leave it to others to be the protagonists of change. You are the ones who hold the future! You … Through you the future is fulfilled in the world. I ask you also to be protagonists of this transformation. Continue to overcome apathy, offering a Christian response to the social and political anxieties, which are arising in various parts of the world. I ask you to be builders of the world, to work for a better world. Dear young people, please, don’t be observers of life, but get involved. Jesus did not remain an observer, but he immersed himself. Don’t be observers, but immerse yourself in the reality of life, as Jesus did. (Prayer Vigil with Young People, July 27, 2013)

This task isn’t exclusively for the young as this week I’ve seen scores of grandparents come into our offices wanting their grandchildren to receive the sacraments in our religious education program because their children (my generation) have grown indifferent or apathetic towards God and haven’t passed it on to their children.  We MUST give a spiritual response to the ills of the world and also recognize that this is a spiritual war.  In a war, we must be armed which is why on Mary’s feast on Thursday I pulled out my rosary.  Our Blessed Mother walks with us during this journey as we go forth to set the world on fire with her beloved Son.  My friends, make no mistake about it, we will be attacked by forces in this world and outside of this world.  The devil exists and the Holy Father called him out by name almost immediately when elected Pope.  I see good people trying to lead good Christian lives struggling with sin and all sorts of issues especially family issues.  I’ve seen husband and wives divided because one wants to go to church and the other doesn’t.  I’ve seen young people come to Mass by themselves because their parents won’t bring them.  So the prophecy of our Lord has been fulfilled.  Jesus does indeed come to establish division, but the question remains: on which side of the division do you stand?  Will you lead the charge against the evils of this world or will you get swept up in the current that allows you to do whatever makes you happy?  Only one side leads to eternal life.  Choose wisely.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

We Walk By Faith

“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)

This past Friday, I was able to visit with Bishop Felipe Estevez in St. Augustine as I traveled with the team to Jacksonville.  We had a very nice time together having lunch and going to the holy sites of St. Augustine to pray.  During our conversations, we talked about the brilliance of Pope Francis and his recent encyclical letter on faith.  The bishop mentioned that he was going to use excerpts from it in his homily this weekend.  Since I had not yet written my homily as of Friday afternoon, I told him that I would probably do the same (amazing how the Holy Spirit works.)  The bishop and I started talking about most of the things the Holy Father had been focusing on and how similar it was to all the things Bishop Roman spent his life preaching about: getting out of our churches to spread the faith.  Faith is central to today’s readings, but a faith that comes alive and doesn’t grow stale.

In his encyclical letter Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), Pope Francis points to Abraham as a model of faith just like today’s second reading does:

Faith opens the way before us and accompanies our steps through time. Hence, if we want to understand what faith is, we need to follow the route it has taken, the path trodden by believers, as witnessed first in the Old Testament. Here a unique place belongs to Abraham, our father in faith. (8)

Abraham recognized the voice of God, and with great faith (and with much to lose) uproots his entire clan to go to a distant country where God promises descendants and great prosperity.  Because of his unwavering faith, Abraham is indeed blessed with descendants and given the land that we call holy today.  But he first had to recognize the voice of God and respond to it.  Once he responds, God’s blessings journey him because faith, after all, is a journey:

The word spoken to Abraham contains both a call and a promise. First, it is a call to leave his own land, a summons to a new life, the beginning of an exodus which points him towards an unforeseen future. The sight which faith would give to Abraham would always be linked to the need to take this step forward: faith "sees" to the extent that it journeys, to the extent that it chooses to enter into the horizons opened up by God’s word.(9)

Faith does indeed call us to a new life, but as the Holy Father points out, just as it did with Abraham,
our faith points us to an unforeseen future because our faith is always prompting us to change.  If faith is indeed a journey, then we can never be in one place.  While faith itself never changes (our beliefs and our morals), our understanding and the practice of our faith does.  Herein lies the challenge to seek better understanding of what we believe in.  Faith should take us into those different “horizons opened up God’s word” so that we may grow more and more in our love for the God that we cannot see.  Our journey through this world is a pilgrimage which faith and hope tells us will one day lead us back into the arms of our Father in heaven.  That is why our faith must constantly be on the move.  Jesus tells his disciple that we must always be dressed to move, to travel because we do not know when the Son of Man will come. 

It took great faith for those first missionary priests to sail out into the unknown and to plant that first cross here in Florida.  Like Abraham, they too ventured into the unknown relying only on God.  If our faith is as deep and as unwavering as that of Abraham, then our pilgrimage through this world will indeed be accompanied by God’s blessings and ultimately lead us back home to Him.  So let our prayer today be that of the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5)