Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Taking Liberties | America Magazine


the cover of America, the Catholic magazine
For a century and a half the Catholic Church in the United States has served the American people with health care, education and social services. Even a few months ago it would have seemed preposterous to suggest that the U.S. government would place the future of those good works at risk. That seems to be what has happened, however, with a decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to allow only a narrow conscientious exemption to the employer health care insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act, the administration’s signature health care reform law.
For U.S. Catholics as citizens, the administration’s failure to offer a broader exemption presents a grave test of the “free exercise” of religion protected by the Bill of Rights. For the narrow definition of religion in the new H.H.S. guideline is at odds with the millennia-old Catholic understanding of the church as a community of believers in service to the world. The H.H.S. definition would force the church to function as a sect, restricted to celebrating its own devotions on the margins of society. The ruling is a threat to our living as a church in the Catholic manner.
The controversial guidelines, announced on Jan. 20 by Kathleen Sibelius, secretary of H.H.S., restricts religious exemptions to those persons and institutions the administration defines as religious—namely, those that serve clear religious functions, employing primarily co-religionists and serving a largely denominational clientele. The administration rejected appeals from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association for a broader conscience clause. Religiously sponsored institutions, like all other employers, will be explicitly required to provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and two potential abortifacients, services that are in violation of Catholic teaching. The administration has thus pushed the U.S. bishops into a destructive showdown over the future of Catholic health care, social services and higher educational institutions. It is a confrontation both sides should seek to avert.
The exemption devised by H.H.S. places Catholic institutional employers in an untenable position. The guidelines force them to cooperate, though indirectly, in grave wrongs by facilitating acts the church considers sinful. They also place dissenting institutions in the position of withdrawing health insurance benefits from their employees and from students at their colleges and universities. Employees of such institutions will have to seek out inferior and more expensive health plans on the open market, and their employers will face annual fines from the federal government for refusing to comply with the employers’ mandate.
A misunderstanding of the Catholic mission in the United States lies at the heart of this unexpected conflict. The Obama administration’s religious exemption covers only entities that serve patently religious functions, including parishes and parochial schools. But serving the broader community through hospitals, clinics, service agencies and institutions of higher learning is not an extraneous activity for the Catholic Church. It is a civic manifestation of the church’s deep beliefs in human dignity, solidarity with the suffering and forgotten, the importance of learning and commitment to the common good. Even as the church remains true to its moral teaching, it is called to remain open and engaged with the wider society. The administration must be led to understand that defining away the church’s service to the world infringes upon Catholics’ free exercise of religion.
Less, but equally real, is the threat to Catholic ecclesial identity created by exasperated responses from some church leaders, who unwittingly would acquiesce to the sectarian temptation presented by the state, jettisoning the church’s public institutions in the name of conscience, apparently without sober attention to the church’s historic teaching on remotematerial cooperation. By complying with similar state-level regulations, however, the practice of Catholic employers in a number of states without conscience exemptions (a full list is at americamagazine.org) suggests many have until now held a different reading of that tradition. In any case, the Catholic conscience needs to remain engaged in the public forum out of our faith in the church as a “sacrament” for the world.
Catholics have resisted authoritarian governments that attempted to confine religion to the altar and sacristy. What has distinguished Western democracies from authoritarian regimes has been not just the freedom of individual believers but especially the institutional freedom of the church. While Catholics should be prepared, if necessary, to resist such a policy in our own country, both sides should leave no stone unturned to find a workable solution without unnecessary confrontation. Practically, in an election year, a solution needs to be found as early as possible. Miscalculations from either side could prove devastating.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Behold, I make all things new!

A Faith Formation teacher had just finished her lesson about Confession and wanted to make sure she had made her point. She said her students, “Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain God’s forgiveness?” There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room, a small boy spoke up and said, "Sin."

Let me ask you a question this morning. Who is going to win the Superbowl next week? My hopes and prayers are on our beloved Patriots, but a week early, we don’t know. How about the World Series? Again, I know who I want to win, but Spring training hasn’t even started yet. So, of course, I don’t know. You see, not knowing is a part of our human condition. It is our lot to live, sometimes uneasily, with uncertainty. There are many occasions in life where it would be great to have a chance to “ask the audience” or “phone a friend,” but instead we’re stuck with the lot of not knowing; of living in the moment and experiencing it as it unfolds.

But, what comes across in our Scriptures today is not the uncertainty and unknowing that we’re used to living with. Instead, what comes across today is authority. The authority that Moses speaks of in the first reading would fit Jesus well, “A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen.” And Jesus does command that type of authority in our Gospel reading today. As we heard, “The people were astonished at [Jesus] teaching, for He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.”

Jesus was an invited speaker at the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum and there they were, very pious and attentive, wondering what He was going to say, and how He was going to say it. As it turned out, His manner of speaking was very different from either a rabbi, or a scribe or a prophet.

It was the practice of Jewish rabbis to build on the teachings of their predecessors. In discussing issues of law put to them, they would often refer to explanations given by rabbis of the past. Over time, those rabbis who gained renown for their wisdom and teaching would have their explanations added to the body of basic teachings from which the rabbis of the future would draw their authority. But, the people in our Gospel passage today are astounded at Jesus words because He does not speak on the authority of great rabbis of the past, no instead, Jesus speaks with His own authority, an authority which comes from Him alone as the Son of God, and His Word, His authority is effective. Notice its power: when Jesus tells the unclean spirit to come out, it comes out of the man, just like that.

This reminds us of the action of God that we hear of in the Book of Genesis. When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light. When He said, “Let there be dry land,” there was dry land, and so on. God’s word is active and creative and does not rely on any other power or authority. It is a power – it is the power – all its own.

Jesus, the very same Word of God in human form, shares in this same power and authority. He speaks differently than everyone else. If He were simply a rabbi or a scribe, He’d have explained the Law of Moses to them. No more, no less. If He were only another prophet, He would simply have handed on the Word of God to them. He would have said, “Thus says the Lord…” But, Jesus speaks for Himself. He made no distinction between His Word and God’s Word because they are one in the same. He was God’s mouth, God’s voice, God’s authority. Small wonder that Christ’s teaching impressed them. After all it was weighted with eternity. Worded like no other teaching before.

Have you ever stopped to think about the power of the Word of Jesus? His words are not just nice words like yours or mine. His words created the universe. His words forgive sins. His words change bread into Body. His words change our lives.

And, what’s even more incredible, is that Jesus continues to speak with this authority today – in His Church, through His priests, in His Sacraments. Jesus shared this authority to teach, preach, forgive and heal with His Apostles and with us today.

Have you ever been confounded trying to understand how it can be that sins are really forgiven in Confession? That bread really becomes Body and wine really becomes Blood in the Eucharist? It is precisely because of the authority with which Jesus speaks that we know these things to be true.

We pray in the Creed that Jesus was “born of the Father before all ages” and that “through Him all things were made.” We hear at the beginning of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

My friends, Jesus is this Word and when He says, “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven,” it isn’t a suggestion. It happens; they are gone – through the power of those words and the ministry of the priesthood – as though they never existed. When He says, “This is my Body; this is my Blood” His word is so powerful that it not only created the Eucharist that night of the Last Supper but through the work of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the priesthood, it created every Eucharist that would ever exist throughout all of time. Jesus Body and Blood are as truly present on this altar as they were in the upper room on the night of the Last Supper. Psalm 33 tells us that “By the Lord’s words, the heavens were made…He spoke and it came to be. He commanded and it sprang into being.”

And He speaks with that same authority to us and in our lives today. He tells each of us, “Your sins are forgiven”, “This is my Body”, “Behold I make all things new.” And so imagine what Jesus can do in our lives. What He can transform and heal and make whole in our hearts. The relationships He can restore, the sins He can overcome, the hearts He can mend – if only we ask Him to speak His Word – a Word of power and authority unlike any other to have ever been spoken – to speak that Word to our hearts. He will speak and we will be made new.

“The people were astonished at [Jesus] teaching, for He taught them as one having authority.”

May God give you peace.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

On a mission

A Catholic Priest, an Episcopal minister and a Baptist preacher were standing near a river conversing when the subject of which church was closest to God arose. The Catholic priest said that of course there was no argument that the Roman Catholic Church was. They were descended directly from the Apostles, in fact Peter was their first Pope. Then he said, “In fact, we are so close that I can even walk on water like Jesus,” and he proceeded to walk on the water to the other side. Then the Episcopal minister said that his church was very similar in origin to the Catholics and he too demonstrated his ability to walk on water like Jesus Christ. The Baptist preacher said that it didn’t matter where Baptist origins were. He studied the Word and preached it purely. Since the other two could walk on water, he should be even better at it. He took one step forward and sunk knee deep into the river. Looking at the Baptist, the Catholic Priest whispered to the Episcopalian, "Do you think we should tell him where the rocks are?"

Our Scriptures today offer us two powerful examples of God calling people to ministry – first, Jonah and his mission to Nineveh and then, Jesus calling the Apostles. For Jonah in our first reading, the city of Nineveh represented the worst of everything – it was a place of godlessness, immorality and corruption. Nineveh, located in what is today northern Iraq, was the capital of the Assyrian empire that had conquered and colonized the kingdom of Judah. It had looted and destroyed the Temple, and carried many people into exile and slavery. It was a large city where the law of the survival-of-the-fittest reigned supreme. Materialism, expressing itself in all forms of immorality, corruption and crime was the order of the day. For pious Jews like Jonah, Nineveh was the godforsaken city, the highway to perdition where evil reigned without any hope of change. It was a hopeless city, populated by lost souls without the slightest hope of regaining God’s favor. No wonder Jonah objected to being sent there. As far as he was concerned the mission to Nineveh was nothing but an exercise in futility. The big surprise in the story is that as soon as the “godforsaken” people of Nineveh heard the Word of God, they received it with eagerness, repented with sincerity, and regained God’s mercy and forgiveness.

In the Gospel we see Jesus calling of the 12 who would become His Apostles and the first leaders of what would become the Church. Jesus called the most unlikely bunch to head up Church. Let’s remember that Peter will deny him, James and John will fight over what preferential position they might have in the Kingdom, Thomas doubts the resurrection, Judas betrays him, the rest run in fear. But, God chooses who He will to do His work. In both the story of Jonah and the calling of the 12, God reached down to earth and called upon finite, limited, sinful, even fallen people to follow him – and when they decided to cooperate with God’s plan, great things happened. The disciples too, struggled for a long time to understand who Jesus was and why he had such an effect on them. Yet in both situations, God formed those He had called into true servants, powerful witnesses of His love.

Today, the message for us is that what God asked of Jonah; what God asked of the Apostles – God asks of us. He wants each one of us to be His witnesses, His servants – to witness to and serve His Kingdom. It doesn’t matter what education we possess, or how dedicated we may be, or what we have to bring to the mix, or even what others think of our ability to be holy. God doesn’t look at what we have done, but rather God sees through us to our potential. God doesn’t worry about who or what we are; His concern is what we can become when we follow His will for us. If God calls us, it is only because He knows that we can accomplish what He asks.

Eventually God invites each of us to follow Him more closely and to participate in His mission. This might require major life changes – a change of career or lifestyle. It might require a smaller, but no less important change – perhaps a transformation of our present careers into a works of service. No matter the career path we have chosen to follow – whether teaching, medicine, the legal profession or business – we have a basic decision to make: do we pursue it solely as a means of livelihood and personal enhancement and material acquisition; or do we use it as a means of service to God and humanity. Remember, in and through God, the fishermen are transformed into fishers of souls. Their work is transformed from being self-centered to being God-centered, from being self-seeking to seeking the glory of God and the benefit of all people.

My brothers and sisters, God is still sending each of us on the mission to Nineveh today. He wants us to bring His Word to any and all of the places where godlessness, immorality and evil reign in our world. God invites us to bring the Good News – to be the Good News – to unimaginable places and “impossible” situations. The good news for us is that these “hopeless” cases are not hopeless after all. For if even Nineveh could turn back to God so can any situation we encounter in life. Nothing – no difficulty, no hurt or pain, no illness, no broken relationship – nothing, is beyond the power of God to heal, to change, to turn into glory.

God calls each of us to something unique in His Kingdom. All we have to do is be faithful to Him in the little things that He calls us to each day. We may or may not be called to shout the Gospel from the mountaintops, but we are all called to live that Gospel in our daily lives – with our spouses, children, parents, friends, co-workers. God forms us into His disciples capable of making a difference in the world, just like the Apostles and just like Jonah. All He’s looking for are humble, open and willing hearts.

And let us hope that God will say to each of us, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of souls.” And give us the courage to abandon what we were doing and follow Him.

May God give you peace.

Fully Pro-Life

A Shepherd’s Voice

Fully Pro-Life  As you read my column today, I am likely on a bus with scores of other Catholics from our parish and from the Cape headed to our nation’s Capitol for tomorrow’s annual March for Life.  This is always such a powerful experience bringing often around a million Americans together to stand up for the cause of life and to be promoters of what Blessed John Paul the Great so famously coined the “Culture of Life.”  So, please pray for all of us making this journey today.

We all know the church’s stand against abortion.  We all know the statistics about this scourge that has been such a polarizing issue in our country for just shy of 30 years now.  We all know that our hopes and prayers continue to be that every child is a wanted child and that all people can come to understand the inherent, God-given dignity of every created human life.  But, where we continue to need to grow is on extending our understanding of that dignity outside of the womb.  And perhaps that is our current and constant challenge. 

It is perhaps highlighted every four years as we end up in a presidential election cycle.  Right now, our airwaves are filled with candidates who claim to be Pro-Life, but even a casual glance at their websites or campaign materials show us that most often, this isn’t true.  They may have a good record on the issue of abortion – and thank God for that.  But, when it comes to the poor, when it comes to the sick, when it comes to the immigrant (both legal and illegal), when it comes to the prisoner on death row, too many of them – too many of us – fail to uphold the same worthy and holy standard on life.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of happy memory, famously coined the phrase “the seamless garment” when it comes to the pro-life teaching of the Catholic Church.  It is a phrase that reminds us that there are no gaps, no loopholes, no exceptions when it comes to the dignity of all human life from natural conception to natural death and at all the moments in between.

The classic divide is that we often find people who are against abortion and in favor of the death penalty or vice versa.  If we are one of these people then we have no real understanding of what the Church teaches and believes. Those who fall into these discordant categories are approaching the cause of life situationally and not theologically and without consistency.  The logic goes like this – who could harm an innocent baby?  So, no abortion.  And, who couldn’t harm a guilty criminal?   So, yes to the death penalty.  The flaw is that this mindset assumes (perhaps unconsciously) that we somehow earn our human dignity. In other words, the baby hasn’t done anything to lose the dignity and the criminal has.  But, God says something different – the dignity of the human person is not a reflection of our action (when you’re good it is strong, when you’re bad it is weak).  The dignity of the human person is inherent in us and given to us, not earned by us, from God.  It is His divine imprint on us.  We can accept and embrace it or we can deny it, but it cannot be taken away from us – ever.  When we disrespect even the dignity of the criminal, we disrespect God’s presence in them.

It is easy to stand up for the defenseless baby in the womb and thank God we do.  It isn’t so easy to stand up for the criminal, the life-long poor, the illegal immigrant and so on – and yet it is our call.  It is in the end what it means to be truly and to be fully pro-life.  The key is in always understanding and embracing that human dignity wherever we find it. And, we find it whenever we find another human being.  If we don’t see it in others, how can we ever expect others to respect the dignity God has placed in us?

Fr. Tom

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Dublin archbishop says lapsed Catholics should admit their non-belief :: Catholic News Agency (CNA)

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin

.- Non-practicing and non-believing Irish Catholics should be honest about their relation to the Church, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told the makers of a TV documentary that aired Dec. 11.

“It requires maturity on two sides: maturity of those people who want their children to become members of the Church community, and maturity of those people who say, 'I don't believe in God, I really shouldn't be hanging on to the vestiges of faith when I don't really believe in it,'” he said.

Archbishop Martin's comments were featured in an episode of “Would You Believe,” RTE Television's investigative series on religion.

Its Dec. 11 episode looked at the issue of Irish parents who have ceased to practice their faith, but still want their children to receive the Catholic sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation.

Filmmaker Mick Peelo's interviews showed many self-identified Irish Catholics seeking sacramental preparation for their children, while lacking either the intention or the ability to pass on the principles and meaning of the faith.

People interviewed for the show gave various reasons for wanting their children to receive the sacraments, despite their own lack of belief and practical commitment.

One woman described the rites of initiation as a “platform from which (children) can question” in later life. Another noted that a child often “doesn't want to be left out” when their peers are making their First Communion.

While Archbishop Martin called for honesty among adults no longer committed to the Church's faith, he also acknowledged that the problem's roots run deep.

“Irish Catholics are very weak, and that's the fault of generations of the Church in their understanding of Scriptures,” he said, reflecting on teachings that “taught us things about religion” but “didn't really deepen our faith.”

He suggested that practices of the past may have inspired anxiety, in place of a personal commitment.

“For many people in Ireland, the God we were practicing and teaching wasn't necessarily the God of love at all. It was a God who inspired fear, it was a God who was sort of a 'somebody watching you,' rather than freeing and empowering you.”

The situation calls not only for honesty, but for a more substantial presentation of Catholicism.

“We have to do a radical new look at the way that religious education takes place,” Archbishop Martin said in his interview with Peelo.

“A religious education is not simply for the schools or for school-age. You can't be a mature Catholic in today's world just on the basis on what you learned in primary school or secondary school. But we're not offering an ongoing formation to people in the way that they needed and wanted.”

The makers of “Would You Believe” spoke with several Irish clergy who acknowledged the inter-generational problems surrounding Catholic identity and commitment.

One of them, Fr. John Hassett, is shown baptizing the child of two parents who appear hesitant toward Catholic practice and belief in several interview segments.

But the priest says he encourages parents to show integrity by living up to the obligations of their choice.

“At every Baptism, I finish the ritual, the couples come up behind the altar, and I say: 'This is a fake – this is a fraud, this is hypocrisy – if the next time your child touches this holy space is on the preparation of (first) Holy Communion,” Fr. Hassett explained.

Dublin archbishop says lapsed Catholics should admit their non-belief :: Catholic News Agency (CNA)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"What are you looking for?"

After his car broke down, a man walked along until he came to monastery where he asked for a ride into town. Since it was dinner time, the monks insisted that he stay and the man was treated to the best fish and chips he's ever had. After dinner, he went into the kitchen to thank the cooks and was met by two of the monks, Brother Michael and Brother Francis. "I want to thank you for a wonderful dinner,” the man said. “The fish and chips were the best I've ever tasted. Out of curiosity, who cooked what?" Brother Michael replied, "Well, I'm the fish friar." And Brother Francis shook his head, sighed and said, “And I guess that makes me the chip monk."

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus asks a very poignant question to the disciples following Him, “What are you looking for?” Of all the things that Jesus says throughout the Gospels, this might be perhaps the most important of them all – at least in as much as it is the very foundational question that every follower of Jesus has got to ask at some point in their journey with the Lord. What are you looking for? It’s also an appropriate question as we bring to a close National Vocation Awareness Week – a week that asks us all to answer that question with possibility that God is calling us to a life of service in the Church as a priest, deacon or religious man or woman.

Our readings today are full of this theme of calling. Certainly true for the disciples in the Gospel, but also from our first reading as we hear of the calling of the prophet Samuel. Now, we’ve all gotten calls at different moments that can change our lives. Maybe it’s a call that tells us we got the job we had hoped to get. Maybe we received a call to say that we were accepted into the school we had applied to. Maybe we got a call to say we won the prize we bought a raffle for. There are also calls that can bring sadness with them letting us know that someone was ill or had passed away. I know growing up in an Irish household, we always believed that a phone call after 10 p.m. must mean that someone had died.

As we heard in our First Reading, Samuel received a call in the middle of the night. But, his call was not bad news. In fact, it would change the course of his life and the course of Israel for generations since it was through the prophetic mission of Samuel that God would establish a monarchy and Samuel would anoint Israel’s first two kings – Saul and then David. Andrew and another disciple heard Jesus call and they responded to His invitation to “come and see.” The next day Peter received his brother Andrew’s call to meet Jesus. Martin Luther King Jr., who we remember this weekend, also received a call to to lead a non-violent movement for justice and civil rights in our country. Most of these calls were not as dramatic as was Samuel’s.

In fact, it is seldom that God calls out our name in the middle of the night. More typically, He speaks to us through prayer and through others – through religious people in our lives, through relatives, friends, even strangers. But what is similar is that if we have the courage to answer when God calls; however God calls – our lives will never be the same. In my homily for Christmas, I shared a time in my own discernment of God’s call more than 20 years ago when I was praying about my vocation to the priesthood. I was trying to decide if God was really calling me. I would often hear other young men talk about how God had told them this, or how they received a sign for that, sort of like the drama of Samuel’s call. I went to church one day to pray and I was a little angry with God, demanding a sign. I prayed, “God, why can’t you give me a sign? Is that too much to ask for?” After leaving the Church, I was driving home when all of a sudden I passed a billboard that said, “Are you looking for a sign from God?” Now, the rest of that sign read, “Join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” I didn’t take that sign literally to mean I should become a Mormon, but rather to stop asking for such things from God because He’s already given to each of us the greatest sign possible – His Son. God’s call was all around me – if I allowed myself to be open to see it and hear it; and more importantly had the courage to follow it. And 20 years later, I am so glad that I did.

Jesus invites many, many to “come and see” but too often, when it comes to ministry in the Church, we are afraid of where He will lead. We have become so enamored of what the world offers – fame and fortune – that we can’t imagine the life that God is calling us to. We often talk about the “vocation crisis” in the Church, but I am a firm believer that there is no vocation crisis. To say there is one is to blame God – it is to say that God stopped calling enough men and women to serve Him in the Church. Of course, God always calls in abundance. So the crisis is on our part – it is a crisis of vocation awareness and acceptance.

So, I invite all of us to do a few things to help alleviate this crisis. For the young men and women in our midst, be open to what God has in store for you. It is often said that we plan, God laughs. God’s plan for our lives is always the best. Consider making a radical choice for Christ and His Church. Consider a life that makes a real difference in our world and in the lives of countless people as a priest, deacon or religious. Take the time to listen as Samuel did and have the courage to respond with the simplicity of his heart to “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

And for those of us who are older and have perhaps found our place in God’s great plan, pray for vocations, pray for these young people. Pray that God will send workers into His vineyard. Let me ask you, by a show of hands, have you ever had the thought about someone that they would make a good priest or religious? And how many of you told that person? My challenge to all of you is tell them. Simply say, “I think you’d make a good priest,” or “Have you ever thought about religious life?” And, let God do the rest.

As we gather today, Christ is with us. He is here in Word, in Sacrament and in His people gathered in His name. And He poses the same question to us today, “What are you looking for?” Let us all listen for His voice. Let us all discover His call. Let us all “come and see” what He wishes us to be. There can be nothing greater in this life. Speak Lord, your servants are listening!

May the Lord give you peace.

Changing the impossible

HOMILY FOR THE 2nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, January 20, 2019: When my parents got married more than 50 years ago, my Mom came from a pract...