Posted by: Thomas Richard | July 9, 2015

Yes, He Is A Priest

BillM-smBlog2Bill was different.  He was a unique person – a unique man.  He was a unique priest.  Once, after a stay with Bill at his apartment in the Bowery section of Manhattan – a second floor walk-up over a pawn shop – I was waiting with Bill on the sidewalk, for a ride out of town.  I had made contact by phone with a priest who was driving out of the city that day to return to his parish, who would be driving near a little one-room cabin deep in the woods of upstate New York – a cabin available for times of solitude, hermitage, and prayer, a cabin owned by a parishioner in this priest’s parish.

Bill as usual was dressed in ordinary secular clothes.  We saw the priest drive up to the curb at the address given him on the phone.  He was wearing the clerical collar – a very unusual sight around the Bowery – so we were sure he was my ride.  He was nervous, making it clear to me that he’d be grateful to load me up right away so he could be on his way.  He was not comfortable in that area of the city, and was constantly looking this way and that as he opened the trunk for my shoulder bag.  He wanted to be out of there.  Bill helped open and close the car door for me, smiling at the priest and offering a few works of friendly small talk, but the priest was in the car and driving away.  Bill smiled and waved good-bye, and we were gone.

Once we were on our way, safely out of the Bowery, and the priest and I had exchanged a few words about my upcoming time in the hermitage cabin, he asked me, “Was that man a priest?”  “Yes,” I said.  “He is a priest.”  “I knew it!”  The priest exclaimed this as he hit his hand on the steering wheel for emphasis.  It was a strange “knowing” – he was not expressing happiness at the confirmation, nor at the recognition of a brother priest, nor at the presence of a priest in the Bowery of New York on the street corner in front of a pawn shop.  His face, his tone, his voice was saying something else.  It was as though he did not want it to be true.  It was as though Bill, a priest, in the Bowery of New York in front of a pawn shop made him angry.  Bill was different; a different kind of priest.

BillM.wpipe.smBlog2Bill was always available to me.  If availability is “poverty,” as some consecrated religious now describe the vow of poverty that they take, then Bill was the poorest consecrated religious man that I ever knew.  He wanted to live poorly, and he did in his humble little “over the pawn shop” one-bedroom in the Bowery.  He wanted to live among the bums, the drunks, the street-people who begged and washed car windshields at the stoplights for change to buy more liquor.  He wanted to be with them; he wanted to be for them, and he was.  This was his home.

Bill was a retreat master, a spiritual director, an expert on Augustine, on John’s Gospel, on John’s epistles.  Most of all, Bill was a catechist: he pointed me and others to Christ, he helped me and others listen to the saving Truth of Christ, he “set up our meeting” with our Lord.  Bill was the wisest man I ever knew: he knew, he was submitted to, he “trembled at” God’s Holy Word.

Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?
All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the LORD. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:1-2)

It is ironic to me that Bill did not want to be called “Father,” though Catholic priests have that title: he was always simply “Bill,” yet he was in truth a father to me.  St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (1 Cor 4:15)

Bill led me to Christ, and he became my spiritual father in Christ.  That word, “Father,” is a holy word!  A profound word, a precious and costly one, earned by the Cross!   To this day the title seems diminished far more than honored by too many others!  Words mean things!   The Word of God, the Truth of God ought to cause “trembling” on the lips of men – a trembling that reaches to the heart, that brings worship, and obedience, and life.

Thank you, Bill, for introducing me to the living Word!  Thank you for pointing me consistently, humbly, faithfully, in a truly fatherly way, for many years to the one sure Rock on which to build my life.  Pray for us, and for the whole Church.  We need it.

BillM-Color2edited_smBlog2These pictures were taken 30 years ago this month, in the summer house of one of Bill’s many friends, in Londonderry NH, during a retreat that Bill directed for my wife Deborah, another retreatant Bob, and me.  Finding the pictures today moved me to many memories, to much gratitude and thanksgiving.  I am humbled by him, yet also strengthened.  Maybe someone else reading this had the privilege of knowing him:

William J. Mountain, S.J. – “Bill.”

Posted by: Thomas Richard | July 3, 2015

The Church is Shrinking, the Faith is in Decline

This title’s sad conclusion comes by way of two polls – the Pew Forum, in their polls of American churches and beliefs, and a recent world-wide Catholic poll by Univision. The statistics are disturbing – or they ought to be! They ought to “disturb” our Church – clergy and laity – into action. Things need to change.

First, the Pew Forum Study

Church membership has been changing. The Pew Forum (1) finds that religious affiliation among Americans shows the following changes, in the years from 2007 to 2014: (The percent given is the percentage of the adult American population):

Catholic membership (now 20.8% of the American adult population), has declined 3.1%. Evangelical Protestants (now 25.4%), declined 0.9%. The Unaffiliated (now 22.8%), grew 6.7%. Mainline Protestants (now 14.7%), declined 3.4%. Non-Christian Faiths (now 5.9%), grew 1.2%.

The study reports, from a broader perspective, that America is now less “Christian” than at the beginning of the study in 2007:

“To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith. But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.”

This is not a good sign! But even more concerning is that those still in the Church are less “Catholic” than they used to be. We are not only fewer; we are less: less faithful and obedient to the Faith that our name, “Catholic,” proclaims.

Concerning Matrimony

The Pew Forum (2) has more recently reported a 10-year study of attitudes concerning homosexual “marriage.” Pew uses the term “gay marriage”, a term that does such violation to Truth that I cannot bring myself to using it. This study reports the following: Fully 85% of those who are religiously unaffiliated favor same-sex marriage, up from 60% in 2005. Majorities of white mainline Protestants (62%) and Catholics (56%) support same-sex marriage; a decade ago just 39% of both groups supported it.

Again, Catholics have declined in both numbers and in the Faith of the Church! In the past seven years membership has dropped by 3.1% to now only 20.8% of the American adult population. And in the past ten years our adherence to the Faith concerning (for example) the meaning of the Sacrament of Matrimony (i.e. “marriage”) has withered from 61% down to at least 44% faithful, concerning only one issue of Matrimony, that is, whether “marriage” can rightly join two homosexuals! No doubt it is worse than that. No doubt more Catholics have separated themselves from the Catholic Faith concerning Matrimony because of other issues, contraception probably being the most likely divisive issue.

Univision’s Poll on Several Issues

Univision (3) polled 12,000 Catholics in twelve countries across the world on modern issues of contention, to determine whether the Catholic supported or opposed the teaching of the Church. The questions included:

1) Question: Do you agree or disagree with Catholic Church policy that says: “An individual who has divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church, is living in sin which prevents them from receiving Communion”?

World-wide, Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 45% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 20% of those who seldom participate at Mass. In the U.S.: Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 36% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 18% of those who seldom participate at Mass.

2) Question: Do you think that women should be allowed to become Catholic priests?

Of course, the Church says “No!” on this issue. World-wide, Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 60% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 32% of those who seldom participate at Mass. But in the U.S.: Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 40% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 20% of those who seldom participate at Mass.

3) Question: Do you think that abortions should be allowed in all cases, allowed in some cases for example when the life of the mother is in danger, or should it not be allowed at all?

Of course, the Church does not allow direct intentional abortion in any case. World-wide, Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 40% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 17% of those who seldom participate at Mass. In the U.S.: Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 23% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 12% of those who seldom participate at Mass.

4) Question: Do you support or oppose the use of contraceptives?

The Church does not allow any use of contraceptives. World-wide, Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 24% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 8% of those who seldom participate at Mass. In the U.S.: Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 16% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 9% of those who seldom participate at Mass.

5) Question: Do you support or oppose marriage between two persons of the same sex?

The Church does not support any so-called “marriage” of same-sex partners. World-wide, Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 74% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 45% of those who seldom participate at Mass. But in the U.S.: Catholics who agree with the Church on this issue: 45% of those who frequently participate at Mass; 20% of those who seldom participate at Mass.

So What?

Granted that interpretations of results of polls can be misleading, that important theological nuances can be blurred, and that questions can be leading, these results as they stand are deeply troubling to me, as a Catholic – although I must confess: I am not surprised by them, not any more. But in this Univision poll, in every one of these questions, a majority of Catholics in the U.S. polled – even among those who “attend Mass frequently” – do not accept Church teaching!

I have great joy and comfort in the assurance that the Catholic Church teaches and believes the truth of God in matters of faith and morals – that she has been entrusted with the truth of God’s holy revelation to mankind. But what about Catholics personally? What about the actual faith of members of His Holy Church? What about the witness of Catholics as they carry His Holy Name, and the Name of His Church, as they walk and talk and live among separated Christians and non-Christians and pagans and the lost of this world? What about the mission to be light in this dark world, entrusted to His Church? What about the honor of His Name, which we carry? What about the hope still flickering in the hearts of the lost, as they listen and watch for some sign of God who will save them?

The answer? We cannot make, or force, others to love truth – or to love truly – or even to hope in love and truth. The Church can, and must, proclaim the truth and live authentic love. Her light must be His light, so that men and woman can dare to hope, and to trust, in the saving Gospel that the Church is sent to preach and to teach. A major impediment, in my opinion, to the Church being Church in these dark times is that she is day-dreaming when she ought to be in training. The enemy is at the gate, and she is planning parish picnics. The enemy is advancing against every weak and easy target that can be attacked in the near future, and she is lounging in a reverie of days long past. He has plans, tactics, strategies, and ambition – and she ought to be preparing for the day of battle: it is close. Take a lesson from the rulers of kingdoms of earth: they form armies, they train them and arm them and prepare them for war. We ought to have their prudence.

Eph 6:10  Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.
Eph 6:11  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
Eph 6:12  For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Eph 6:13  Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
Eph 6:14  Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
Eph 6:15  and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace;
Eph 6:16  besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.
Eph 6:17  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Eph 6:18  Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,…

Every Catholic adult ought to recognize the need! It may not be too late, not yet. Every Catholic parish ought to have faith formation programs in place for every Catholic of every age – programs evaluated and re-evaluated regularly by clergy, staff and lay parishioners. Do these programs help us to grow, to mature in Christ? Do they lead us to holiness – to Christ?

Eph 4:11  And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
Eph 4:12  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
Eph 4:13  until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;
Eph 4:14  so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.
Eph 4:15  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
Eph 4:16  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.

Church, wake up.

Notes:

(1) Pew Forum study http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
(2) http://www.people-press.org/2015/06/08/support-for-same-sex-marriage-at-record-high-but-key-segments-remain-opposed/
(3) http://www.univision.com/interactivos/openpage/2014-02-06/la-voz-del-pueblo-matriz-1

Posted by: Thomas Richard | June 22, 2015

Diagnosis of the Heart: The Parable of the Sower – Part 1

A question for the reader: What kind of listener are you, when God is speaking to you? What kind of listener do you want to be? Jesus offers us a crucially important teaching on this matter, in (as it is commonly known) “The Parable of the Sower.” I’ll begin with the parable itself, then I’ll suggest some commentary on its meaning, and finally I’ll offer a suggestion of what Jesus may be teaching us concerning how, positively, we can begin to remove obstacles from our hearts, and our hearing, things that can keep us from Him whom we seek.

1. The Parable

Mar 4:1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.
Mar 4:2 And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:
Mar 4:3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow.
Mar 4:4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.
Mar 4:5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil;
Mar 4:6 and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away.
Mar 4:7 Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
Mar 4:8 And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
Mar 4:9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Mar 4:10 And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.
Mar 4:11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables;
Mar 4:12 so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.”
Mar 4:13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?
Mar 4:14 The sower sows the word.
Mar 4:15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them.
Mar 4:16 And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy;
Mar 4:17 and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.
Mar 4:18 And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word,
Mar 4:19 but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
Mar 4:20 But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

2. Commentary on the Meaning of the Parable

Mar 4:14 The sower sows the word.

Jesus tells us two reasons for the importance of this parable: first, the seed is “the word” – the saving word of God. Jesus is telling us a parable about the holy and saving word of God. And we know, from Paul, that hearing the saving word of God is necessary for belief in Him – for saving faith – as Paul writes in the Book of Romans:

Rom 10:13 For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Rom 10:14 But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?
….
Rom 10:17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.

So, fruitful reception of this saving word, this “seed,” is crucially important to us. How do we come to really believe? How do we come to have saving faith in Jesus? We need to hear Him – we need to hear Jesus. We need to hear His Truth, His Gospel. This parable is therefore a crucially important parable because of what it is about.

The parable is also crucially important for a second reason: it is a “primary” or foundational parable. Jesus asks His disciples in this passage, a piercing question: “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mk 4:13) This question deserves to be considered very carefully by anyone who is concerned for the true good of his own soul! Jesus once asked, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk 9:25) If we want to understand the saving teachings of Jesus, we need to understand the parable of the sower, this teaching. It is fundamental. To understand His other parables, to learn from Him, to be His disciple, we need to understand this parable in particular. Otherwise, how will we understand the rest?

This parable describes several ways – four – that a person can hear the truth of God. The saving word of God is “sown” on the heart of a person as seed is sown on the ground. The person can hear it unprofitably in several ways, but in only one way he can hear profitably, fruitfully, beautifully. Let us focus on the four ways that Jesus describes:

1) A Listener on “the Path”

Mar 4:3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow.
Mar 4:4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.
….
Mar 4:15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them.

“The path” represents, perhaps, a listener of the word who is preoccupied – busy – and not about the things of God. In his heart he is “on a path,” on the road to somewhere else, to some place he has chosen. He is not focused on the words of God, of His new and different life being offered to him: this man’s mind and heart are elsewhere. It is an easy matter for the evil one – like birds easily feeding on seeds lying on the ground – to take the word out of his mind and heart. This person is a busy soul, a distracted soul, inattentive to what is most important for him: his life. The words of God rest only “on the surface” of his heart, not penetrating into it and into him. He has other matters of concern, on his journey.

2) A “Rocky” Heart

Mar 4:5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil;
Mar 4:6 and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away.
….
Mar 4:16 And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy;
Mar 4:17 and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.

The “rocky ground” represents a listener very different from one “on his own path”. The “rocky ground” person listens and hears and receives the word into his heart! The saving truth does not remain outside of him, but is taken within. However, this person has a serious impediment to the word: his heart has regions of hardness – like rocks in the ground – and rocks are hard; they are sterile. These rocky areas in the heart are grave problems for the word – and of course for the person listening and hearing. He hears, and quickly receives and believes! But the word cannot be sustained in his heart, it cannot mature and grow and bring forth fruit because of the hardness within. When difficulties come because of the word, he falls away like a root-starved plant withering in the heat of the sun. “When tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.”

3) A Heart of Thorns

Mar 4:7 Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
….
Mar 4:18 And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word,
Mar 4:19 but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

The “thorny ground” represents a still different listener. His heart presents impediments to the word and the life it can bring, in a way different from the path and also from the rocks: thorns are rooted in the heart, and their plants draw sustenance from the ground in competition with the seeds sown by the sower. The thorns “choke” the seeds of the word, and the seeds of the word are thereby starved, and cannot grow to maturity. They are crowded out by thorns, choked by them, starved and retarded in the growth they are intended to produce in the heart.

4) A Heart of “Good Ground”

Mar 4:20 But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Finally, here, the Lord describes good ground that is worthy of the good seed. This heart is not preoccupied with the path from one place in this world to another. This heart is not obstructed but is cleared of rocks and thorns, and its interior is rich and potent. It can receive the potent word worthily and the result is life: beautiful fruit, abundant fruit that can unfold “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

Having found the general meaning of what Jesus was saying, about the different kinds of hearers who were listening to Him, we need to consider what this means for us – for each of us personally. Who am I, in these four categories of listeners? Where do I fit into this parable, personally? And more important, what am I to do in the future – perhaps differently – so as to enable me to be a better listener, a better hearer – a more fruitful “ground” in my own heart for the saving word of God?

3. What Does All This Say To Me?

When God looks into our hearts, what does He see? A human heart is pictured by Jesus in this parable – Jesus who IS God – as having four possibilities, and clearly if this were a multiple-choice test, the best answer would be the fourth one, the good ground. The good ground is a pure heart (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!” – Mt 5:8). We can thank God that He has given us in this parable, a list of spiritual “infirmities of the heart” that can afflict us. The three problematic heart conditions for a human person, in the parable, are:

The “path” condition: the heart is deadened by busyness, immersion in the world, preoccupation with one’s journey here and now, toward things to do and places to go to, that are merely of this passing world. Such a heart does not receive the living word into itself – God’s word stays on the surface, where it is quickly taken away and forgotten. The path needs to be plowed, and watered: the heart needs a new “path” – the path to life, to truth, to God.

The “rocks” condition: because of interior hardness, the heart cannot sustain the new life of God it has received. It this case the word, the seed, is received into the heart – very much unlike the case with the path-person, whose heart does not receive the word at all. The word is received, but the ground is shallow and it does not permit the living word to take deep roots into itself. The word is received, but it is not well-rooted. The rocks must be dealt with – and removed. They keep God’s word and life shallow in us, they keep our faith superficial and weak. They make it impossible for the word of God to endure and remain in us through life’s trials and tribulations! We must consider then the cause, or the source, of these rocks in a human heart, and remove them.

The “thorns” condition: the new life of God has been received into the heart, but it is impeded and obstructed by another, a different, and indeed an opposing old life. Two very different “life-forms” are now planted and are growing in the same field – the same human heart. The living word of God has been received and is growing, but alongside useless and harmful thorns that are growing too. And these two “life-forms” – these two lives – are inherently incompatible with each other. One must overcome the other; we must choose one or the other. The thorns must be dealt with – and removed – because they are choking out the living word of God, and rendering Him fruitless in us! We must consider then the cause, or the source, of these thorns in a human heart; they must be removed: “the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”


This post will be continued in “Diagnosis of the Heart: The Parable of the Sower – Part 2.”

Posted by: Thomas Richard | June 22, 2015

Diagnosis of the Heart: The Parable of the Sower – Part 2

This is the conclusion to the previous post, “Diagnosis of the Heart: The Parable of the Sower – Part 1.”

4. How Can I Progress to True “Heart Health” and Mature Spiritual Life?

As we have seen, there are three pathologies of the heart that must be corrected:

1) The first pathology is being on the wrong path itself! The sickness is then a heart without its proper direction, lacking (or refusing to recognize) the fundamental human need to return to God who is our Creator, Redeemer, and final destination.

So for this case of the “path,” what is the prescription for heart-health? For those on one of the many wrong paths of life, whether they are church members or not, the one true way is Jesus. One day we will all stand before Him; He is our final Judge. It is to Him that the path of our lives must lead. There is one way to life: Jesus. He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me!” (Jn 14:6) What is the “prescription”? It is conversion. Repent, and believe the Gospel. Life is only in Him. This world is passing, and all its treasures and ambitions will be destroyed with it – but the soul will continue, and every soul will be judged. Now is the time to turn to God, in whom alone can we hope, and trust, and live. Now is the time for a final, definitive and irrevocable commitment to follow Him, and Him alone. To become, seriously, His disciple. To learn from Him, to obey Him, to entrust my life to Him, whatever the cost. To be a Christian.

2) The second pathology is the rock-infiltrated heart. This is the first obstacle that a Christian finds in himself, when he seeks to learn from and to follow Jesus: hardness in his own heart. Such hardness can come, for example, from fears, from smallness of faith, and from failure or refusal to forgive others. The first thing we need, and seek, from Jesus as a disciple is forgiveness. We need to be forgiven! We come to Him in repentance, sorry for our former life, seeking a clean and new beginning! But we learn from Him that forgiveness comes at a cost: we must become persons of forgiveness – we must be forgiving of others, if we would seek the Father’s forgiveness for ourselves.

In His beautiful prayer, the Our Father, we pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Immediately after teaching the foundation for prayer, the Our Father, Jesus adds this emphatically:

Mat 6:14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you;
Mat 6:15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The consequences are clear. If we keep a heart hardened against mercy for others, refusing to forgive others who have trespassed against us, then the Father will not forgive us either. To be open to His mercy, we must become a people of mercy. You and I must be persons of mercy. Our hearts must be not hardened against others, but merciful and forgiving.

The cure for this pathology, then, is also clear. We must recognize these rocks of hardness in our hearts, and repent of them. To keep hardness in our hearts, refusing to be merciful, is a sin! And it is sin we must see, admit, recognize, and reject. We must cast the hardness of refusal to forgive out of our hearts by His grace, so we can present a heart to Him that is worthy of Him: a heart of mercy, that loves mercy, that seeks and needs and can receive His mercy. In such a heart, His life can grow.

3) The third pathology is the thorn-infested heart. To understand the important distinction between “rocks” and “thorns” in the heart is to realize that one is dead and inanimate – rocks – but the other is living and growing although fruitlessly – thorns. One is a hardness in the heart, but the other is living and growing, and is rooted deep in the heart. We begin to see the difference: rocks are alien to the heart, but rooted plants (even though incapable of bearing fruit, like a thorn-bush) are things loved and welcomed into the heart (even though things, such as the thorn-bushes, that produce only the fruit of harm and injury: sharp and hurtful thorns).

If we would find the “cure” for this affliction of the heart, we must see the cause: false loves. The affliction is common to man, and is deep in him. False loves are rooted so deeply, and can be so many, that we can do little by ourselves to stop loving and desiring things that we should not. We can struggle to resist certain attractions, but we can do little to stop being attracted. We can hate the fact that we desire things that we ought not desire, but we cannot stop desiring them. Such things are thorn bushes, rooted in the heart, and they can choke the living word of God and keep us fruitless in His work. Only God can deliver us from such a deeply imbedded enemy of our souls. But God can so deliver us! Remember Paul’s writing in Scripture:

Rom 7:15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
….
Rom 7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Rom 7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
Rom 7:21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
Rom 7:22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self,
Rom 7:23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.
Rom 7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Rom 7:25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The Lord Jesus and only He can deliver us from false loves, but we must do our part and cooperate with Him. We must “hate” that which we ought not love, or that we love in a false and ungodly way! We must cry out to God with the passion we hear in Paul, above, in his struggle against “wretchedness” in him.

John, in his first letter, writes:

1Jn 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.
1Jn 2:16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.
1Jn 2:17 And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.

God will remove these thorns, these false loves, from our hearts – “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” – but it will be a difficult and lengthy process of purgation. God does this work in a kind of darkness, which John of the Cross calls the Dark Night of the Soul, but it is His beautiful will to so cleanse us and make us pure. God wants pure hearts! Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God! For out part, we must want all that He wants, and hate all that He hates. In such a heart, His holy seed finds good ground: good, fruitful and rich ground, ground that brings joy in heaven and on earth.

It must be said, lest the reader wrongly “compartmentalize” these four kinds of heart – wrongly thinking that these must be four different persons! They could be describing the same one person, at four times or stages of his life of discipleship. Healing for a human person – spiritual healing, for a strong and fruitful spiritual life – is a life-long process that is indicated by this wonderful parable. The parable presents four typical conditions of the heart – four which can be discovered in any sincere seeker of the Truth! A person can discover in his adult years that he is a “path person” in whom the Gospel finds no welcome at all! He might even attend Mass regularly, but entirely as a spectator, eager for Mass to be over, eager to get out and return to his more important interests and occupations. He might, late in life, discover this and experience a holy fear of God for the first time – and then, and only then, “turn and become as a child” on a journey at last toward heaven.

Such a person then, and only then, begins to hear the Gospel – and begins to discover with great joy the new life in Jesus Christ! But then later, he might begin to discover some of the costs of discipleship that he had not anticipated. His new-found faith in Jesus may threaten his ambitions for career advancement – or it may threaten an important relationship with a person special to him who does not share at all his new-found religious sensibilities and moral concerns. Or in some other way, he may discover that being a serious Christian can cost. It can cost, and he does not want to pay the price, and so his fervor cools and his faith weakens, and becomes not so important to him as before.

But such a person can wake up from this dark failure – indeed and Peter did, after denying Jesus three times because of fear within him! It is such irony that Simon, renamed by Jesus “Peter,” which means “rock”, should find in himself such a heart. But all is not necessarily lost. Such a person can awaken, and stand up, stronger than before – and yet still the Lord is not finished with him. He can next find in himself an even more humbling truth about himself than hardness of heart: he can discover within, unholy thoughts, unholy feelings, unholy desires, as indeed St. Paul described within himself in Romans, above. He finds an interior battle: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” He discovers “in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” He discovers thorns choking the life of God within him. He cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Such discoveries of inner conflicts, of competing loves, desires against desires, demonstrate examples of the struggle for rooted space in the heart: briars and thorns against holy divine seed, root against root, two ways of life each incompatible with the other, the work of God and love of holiness, against the work of the evil one, and love for sin. The seed sown in thorny ground can be the experience of the same man who once was dead to God on the worldly path, but who repented and began to follow Jesus. This can be the same man who then denied his Lord out of a rocky heart of fear but then repented and returned. The struggle against the thorns can be a deeper and more difficult spiritual battle, on the journey to the purity of heart that God desires.

4) Finally, there is the good ground: a pure heart, purified and purged of the sins and the love of the sins of this passing world. The good ground is not trampled upon, hardened, dried-out and compacted by worldly travel. The good ground has been cleared of hidden and secret rocks within. The good ground has been weeded and tended, all thorn bushes uprooted and discarded. The pure heart is the good ground, hungers for Him alone, and anyone else or anything else only in Him. This is God’s intention for us all: holiness.

Mar 4:20 But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.


Footnote: This entire journey is discussed also in my book The Ordinary Path to Holiness, (at Amazon and Barnes and Noble) which may be a helpful resource in your journey of following Christ.

Posted by: Thomas Richard | May 27, 2015

Collapse of Faith in Ireland; Lesson for America

The collapse of Catholic Faith, in the historic stronghold of the Faith, Ireland, ought to send a shudder of shock through us Catholics of America. How did it come to this? How did 62% of the voting public of “Catholic Ireland” vote “Yes” to a redefinition of marriage in the Irish Constitution, to make marriage a union of two persons, and no longer “merely” a union of one man and one woman? This voluntary departure from Catholic Faith to be newly revised in their Constitution is even more stunning, and troubling, in the light of the beautiful and faith-filled Preamble to their Constitution:

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,
We, the people of Éire,
Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,
Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,
And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,
Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.

It is hard for an American to imagine a constitution written “in the Name of the Most Holy Trinity”! I would think I had died and woke up in the glory of the New Heavens and the New Earth! Many Irish I know would say with a twinkle in the eye that my dream would be close to the truth! But that was then, and this is now – a now that hurts deep in the heart of all faithful Catholics who mourn the fall of His Church anywhere in the world. Worse, the radical changes in the Church in Ireland have come fast. A helpful summary is found in a Crisis article “The Joyful Death of Catholic Ireland” – or a secular analysis in the Chicago Tribune, “How Catholicism fell from grace in Ireland.” As a brief summary, I would say that the collapse of the Church and her place in Irish society seems to have its origin in the growth of material success and in secular values, along with a decline in the traditional respect held for the Church (read: sex scandals).

The Tribune article includes an anecdote that seems very telling, and important, regarding the contemporary Irish Catholic reality. It is a comment from a priest in Ireland having a name that was surprising:

For the 8:30 a.m. daily mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, an imposing old church just off O’Connell Street in the heart of Dublin, you might expect to see Father O’Sullivan at the altar. Or perhaps Father O’Reilly or Father O’Flaherty. Father Owuamanam comes as a bit of a surprise.
But Remigius Owuamanam, a priest from Nigeria, is a good reflection of the changes that have overtaken both church and society in Ireland during the last 20 years.

Owuamanam, the Nigerian priest, joked that parishioners at Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral measured his ability as a priest by how quickly he could get through the mass. “Here I try to be very fast. Twenty-five or 30 minutes. In Africa, a mass is two or three hours long,” he said. Anything less, he said, and people would feel cheated. “And in Africa, they don’t just sit and watch. They sing, they dance, they are included.” Owuamanam said he has concluded that the Irish are lacking in “spiritual energy.”

It ought to be a wake-up call to Church leadership, when an important measure of the quality of one’s worship of God is how quickly it is over. In a parish mission I attended recently, the mission priest announced that he asked the parish administrator what we parishioners wanted, and from what he was told, he thus announced to us that his mission talks would be short – out in less than an hour. Revival, in less than an hour. Renew your faith, in less than an hour. Refresh your personal relationship with almighty God, in and out in less than an hour. God have mercy on us.

The Irish Constitution first written and intended “in the Name of the Most Holy Trinity” has been most deeply violated, with a lie that would have been celebrated in Sodom and Gomorrah, and is now being celebrated in “Catholic” Ireland. Welcome to the modern, post-Christian West, with its culture and moral climate more fitting for pre-Christian paganism. The advancing culture of this hour is one called by Pope St. John Paul II “the culture of death” – a culture far from the culture of life and of love given us by Jesus and empowered in us by the Holy Spirit. This Pope wrote in Evangelium Vitae:

24. It is at the heart of the moral conscience that the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, with all its various and deadly consequences for life, is taking place. It is a question, above all, of the individual conscience, as it stands before God in its singleness and uniqueness. But it is also a question, in a certain sense, of the “moral conscience” of society: in a way it too is responsible, not only because it tolerates or fosters behavior contrary to life, but also because it encourages the “culture of death”, creating and consolidating actual “structures of sin” which go against life. The moral conscience, both individual and social, is today subjected, also as a result of the penetrating influence of the media, to an extremely serious and mortal danger: that of confusion between good and evil, precisely in relation to the fundamental right to life. A large part of contemporary society looks sadly like that humanity which Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans. It is composed “of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (1:18): having denied God and believing that they can build the earthly city without him, “they became futile in their thinking” so that “their senseless minds were darkened” (1:21); “claiming to be wise, they became fools” (1:22), carrying out works deserving of death, and “they not only do them but approve those who practice them” (1:32). When conscience, this bright lamp of the soul (cf. Mt 6:22-23), calls “evil good and good evil” (Is 5:20), it is already on the path to the most alarming corruption and the darkest moral blindness.

It’s obvious, but it needs to be said: the Church must become light in this growing darkness! In America the increasing number of wholly secularized citizens of the City of Man, hostile to the City of God and to all that is of God, are a growing opposition to a culture of life, of reason and of truth. They are persistent and committed to their cause, while we in the Church seem lazy, sleepy, self-obsessed. We measure our spiritual life by how little it costs us. While they have been busy advancing their agenda, we have been busy dumbing ourselves down in the things of God, desensitizing our hearts to His gentle movements and quiet urgings, minimizing our time in His presence, and dishonoring the Name He put on our souls with shameful and hidden loves that ought not be among us. We have reduced our Church, not in all parishes but in many, to become one more large bureaucratic institution, many of our clergy merely business managers and official dispensers of ritual, many of our laity to part-time members of a nice, friendly social club, hopefully in and out in less than an hour.

Friendliness is not bad, but it does not save. Christ did not die on the Cross so that the world might become more friendly. Martyrs did not suffer death for easy truths that no one disputes or rejects. Indeed, He came not to bring peace but a sword! (Mt 10:34) And many swords drawn in this world today are aimed straight at the hearts of His followers. The Truth of Christ will draw men to salvation! And it will also enflame others in hateful and angry violence. But the Truth deserves to be proclaimed, and needs to be heard. If anything can save this world, and the men who lust to rule it, it is the Truth of Jesus Christ. If anything can expose the dark lies that infect human societies, and that can illuminate the way to lasting cultures worthy of human persons, it is the Truth of Jesus Christ. Ministers of the Church of Jesus Christ, you were entrusted! He entrusted you, and empowered and sent you! And many of you are drowsing and dozing and running out the clock on your careers. Many of you sing not anthems of truth but soothing lullabies to the people. You rock them to sleep, and they can hardly tell what is happening to them, nor what is not happening in them. Look at Ireland, ministers of the Church, and see the ugly fruit of a vineyard not cared for. See the harvest of hired men, who are not shepherds after the Good Shepherd who cares for His own. On that Day, every one of us will answer, will give account, for the fruit of his life. On that Day, all will know the immense value of the precious fruit that endures to eternal life.

Posted by: Thomas Richard | May 16, 2015

Reparation: Freely Suffering for the Good of Another

Gregory Wietrzychowski – on a walking pilgrimage of penance and reparation.

Penance and reparation for our sins – and for the sins of others – can seem strange to non-Catholics and even to many Catholics in these days.  Yet Jesus opened for us, and for all called into His Name, His surprising act of love: the Cross.  He said,

  • “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:24)
  • “… and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:38)
  • And again, He said,  “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13)
  • His Apostle John wrote, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 Jn 3:16)

Concerning reparation, I wrote the following on my website Renew the Church! on the page, The Path of Renewal

Reparation is an invisible, spiritual work of repair, of restoration, of rebuilding, of cleansing and of renewal. Reparation is owed in justice, for the damages and insults of sin. Reparation is a work of sacrificial love, following the example of Jesus. Reparation is a silent and hidden apostolate, seeking and receiving no praise of men, trusting only in the Father who sees in secret and rewards in secret.

Reparation is an apostolate open to all, and especially to the ordinary. The most common and ordinary of human works can be offered to God in a loving gesture of reparation, and are received in love. The most ordinary of persons, in the most ordinary of lives, can offer in prayer to God the most ordinary of moments – yet in the transforming power and light of love – unto holy reparation in union with the Cross of Jesus. There is no suffering that God permits to us too great or too small that we cannot unite with His holy sufferings on the Cross. Reparation is a work of love, our common vocation. Reparation is a fruit of prayer along the ordinary path to holiness, our universal call.

Gregory Wietrzychowski is a man who heard the call to respond to Christ in this apostolate.  My wife Deborah and I had the humbling privilege of meeting him and talking with him this week – as we had a similar privilege some weeks earlier, in meeting and talking with Mark Byerly.  Mark, similarly, heard and responded to this call of the Lord in a strong and definitive way.  You may remember hearing of Mark Byerly, if you read my blog post A Pilgrimage of Penance, Prayer and Sacrifice, and saw the video on that page (the video produced by Michael Voris).  I wrote again on Mark and his ministry on a second post, Update on A Call to Desert Hermitage… Mark Byerly.

Interestingly, it was in watching the video of Mark and his personal response, that Gregory came to know that he also must respond to this need for penance and reparation in our culture.  Gregory is responding, and heroically, and is bearing witness now in his seventh month of an expected two-year walking pilgrimage to Marian shrines  in the U.S.  At each shrine, he prays the Rosary and prayers of reparation and penance.  Like Mark, he does not ask for money or even for a ride.  He will ask for food or water, if it seems really needed.  He will accept a ride if freely offered, and money too, but he has entrusted himself and his pilgrimage to the care, the protection and the provision of Mary his Mother.  His back-pack, and his front-pack, together are heavy!  I lifted them, I know.  I asked how much they weigh; his response, “Well, about seventy pounds now, but maybe eighty after I add some food for the road.”  Yes, those are grey hairs in his beard and on his head.  But speaking of the weight of these bags, he said simply, “It’s the Cross.”

Please pray for Gregory, and for Mark, and for all men and women in Christ who are hearing the call in our time for a full-hearted “Yes!” to our Lord.  Jesus is calling His Church to bear witness to His Gospel, His very Good News of holy life, eternal life, pure divine love, clear and unstained truth.

A Daily World news interview with Gregory may be found and read HERE.

Gregory on the road, in ministry of reparation, in prayer for us all.

Gregory on the road, in ministry of reparation, in prayer for us all.

Posted by: Thomas Richard | May 6, 2015

Acedia: Spiritual Sloth and the Church of Laodicea, U.S.A.

Acedia. The dictionary defines the noun “acedia” (əˈsēdēə) as spiritual or mental sloth (reluctance to work; laziness); apathy. The origin of the word is the Greek akēdia ‘listlessness,’ from a– ‘without’ + kēdos ‘care.’ Thus, “without care” – lacking engagement, concern, commitment, zeal. Modern manifestations of acedia, or spiritual sloth, could include apathy toward God, boredom with the truths of God, indifference toward the will of God, unconcern for the intentions of God. Associated with acedia also is a kind of sadness, a lack of the joy of spirit that accompanies a sharing in the holy love of God.

Acedia – in this religious context – is a sin. It is among the sins called “capital sins”:
Catechism 1866 – “They are called “capital” because they engender other sins, other vices. They are pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth or acedia.

There are two Bible passages I would like to focus on, to suggest a sense of this sin, acedia, or spiritual sloth. Scripture uses the Greek word “oknēros” translated in the RSV Bible as “sloth,” used together with the word for “wicked,” for a servant who did not use the talent with which he had been entrusted.

The Parable of the Talents

Mat 25:14  “For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property;
Mat 25:15  to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
Mat 25:16  He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more.
Mat 25:17  So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more.
Mat 25:18  But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.
Mat 25:19  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
Mat 25:20  And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’
Mat 25:21  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’
Mat 25:22  And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’
Mat 25:23  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’

Mat 25:24  He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow;
Mat 25:25  so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
Mat 25:26  But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed?
Mat 25:27  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
Mat 25:28  So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents.
Mat 25:29  For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
Mat 25:30  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’”

Our Lord said to him, “You wicked and slothful servant” And then, for his judgment, “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” Clearly this trait of sloth, or acedia concerning the works of a servant of the Lord – apathy, boredom, indifference, unconcern – is no trivial thing! Also, notice the (wrong) opinion the slothful man had of his master. He rightly knew his master was just, but he wrongly understood the master’s justice as a hardness: that the master was “a hard man.” Did he rightly understand his master? Did he know his master?

A second passage that is instructive in understanding acedia is this one, from Revelations:

To the Church in Laodicea

Rev 3:14  “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.
Rev 3:15  “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot!
Rev 3:16  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.
Rev 3:17  For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
Rev 3:18  Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.
Rev 3:19  Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.
Rev 3:20  Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Rev 3:21  He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Rev 3:22  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'”

This church of Laodicea is composed of lukewarm – tepid – members, nether hot with zeal for the Lord and His mission nor cold in opposition against Him. This church of Laodicea is indifferent about God, apathetic, unconcerned about the Gospel, about truth, about holy love, about the work of saving souls for Jesus Christ. This church thinks, believes, that it is rich and prosperous, and thus it does not need or lack anything of importance! They say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing”! God sees something very different: this church is “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”! Clearly this love for the riches of the world alongside its apathy toward God, this unconcern for the things of God, is gravely wrong. Clearly such spiritual impoverishment ought to be of grave and urgent concern for the church – as it is for the Lord.

The ugliness of acedia in the sight of God challenges us to realize that it is more than mere “lukewarmness”. A slothful man is more than merely “lazy.” A slothful man is unmoved in his heart by the holy love of Christ who suffered and died for him. A slothful man has no interest in meditating upon the Crucifix or the Passion of Christ, nor in entering into God’s presence in prayer as he sits in his pew awaiting Mass to begin – he looks at his watch, concerned with how long the Mass will last if and when it finally begins! He is concerned with getting to his car as quickly as he can when Mass is over, to beat the rush of others eager to return to their “real” lives. He is concerned that the announcements are not too long. He is concerned that the homily is not too long and boring, and that Father moves the Liturgy along as he is supposed to.

The slothful man has no patience with the appeals to become a vibrant and active living member of the Body of Christ! He only grudgingly responds to calls to share his “time, talent and treasure.” He understands well only two of those three: his time and his treasure. His precious time, and his precious money. The slothful man thinks, “The Church is a business, and businesses need money, but how much?” For the slothful man, the bishop is a CEO and the local priest is a manager – and both are all about the business of Religion. The slothful man has only a mild disgust in his heart for matters of the Spirit, a cynicism in his heart that admits only the concerns of this world: concerns of parish property, building maintenance issues, parish budget matters. For him, concerns of the spirit and matters of salvation, of holiness, Catholic doctrine, the grace of sacraments, the importance of authentic prayer – these spiritual matters he avoids and turns away from as quickly as he can.

The slothful man is bored and saddened by that which ought to engage and enflame his spirit. For him, God is a “hard man” as the servant who was given one talent believed. The slothful man shuts his ears to the truth that God is Love, that God suffered and died that all men might be saved. The slothful man is bewildered by talk of communion with God in Christ, by a call to holiness and to love as Christ loves. The slothful man knows only the “hard man” God to whom his own time, talent and treasure must be accounted for, a God who demands his church presence, his donations, his hour at Sunday Mass. In this barren soul, a sadness permeates where divine light ought to be.

Jesus came because of love; He came to love; He came to save. Even now He continues to cry out to hearts that reject Him:

Rev 3:18  “Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.
Rev 3:19  Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.
Rev 3:20  Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Rev 3:21  He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Rev 3:22  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

That which bores the slothful man is that which would save him! That which he wrongly seeks, longs for, and values – the man’s “gold” of this world – is worthless: it is fool’s gold, counterfeit, glass beads. But the gold that would enrich him is not so cheap: it requires refinement in fire, and refinement by fire brings suffering. The real gold demands attention and donation of the heart; it calls for perseverance and endurance. It is free, but it costs everything. It is a gift, but it entails a life-long labor of love. All that the slothful man has rejected has deprived him of his own soul as well: he has lost himself in fears, in self-protection. But in Christ awaits all he seeks, all he needs: the gold, the white garment, the salve to give him sight. It is so very simple! He is so very close! Can this man listen, and hear; can he know what is in his reach, waiting?

Posted by: Thomas Richard | April 20, 2015

Waiting Vessels…

_DSC0008_09_10_B&Wsmall(Boats and clouds in dialogue - R. Thomas Richard © 2015)


The boats, once sent out to the whole world, rest at their docks.  They are well-tied, needing maintenance, needing workers, needing work, resting.  Overhead spirits hover, moist with fertile water and living breath; the one Spirit ready, waiting also for the hour to come.  There is an hour coming!  It comes quietly but will arrive to awaken all; it will shake the whole earth, open all eyes, fill the world with the sound of justice.  Some men will stop their ears in horror!  Some men will weep in joy, the sweet sound of justice come, the splendor of holy light exploding into every darkness and buried secret sin.

The hour comes and the boats will again set out.  They will lower their nets in generosity, in mercy, in His last call that all might come home.

Workers, fishermen, are you ready?  Are the nets repaired?  Are the lines strong?  Is the boat tight?  Are you ready for the hour?  Holy vessels, formed by God for salvation: are you still taking your ease?  Are we ready, and willing for the great hour of consummation coming, so near, so close?

Many Catholics have married “outside the Church,” for one reason or another.  This group of Catholics includes those who have remained active in the Church, as well as those who have left, and not practiced the Faith for some time.  Also, this article will not explore the many circumstances that may have led these Catholics to marry through secular authorities, or Protestant ministers, or some other pathway.  I want only to urge and discuss some of the reasons why these Catholics ought to get their marriage officially witnessed to, by and within the Church, as soon as they can.  It is something well worth the effort, no matter how many years have passed with the situation as-is.

Christians, and the One Catholic Church

When Jesus first gave to Peter and the apostles authority over matters of the Church, He was giving that authority to them and also to their successors who would follow them – that is, the Pope and the Bishops of the (present-day) Catholic Church.  Jesus certainly did not think that His Church would last for only one generation of leaders!  Authority was passed to popes and bishops for many centuries – but the issue of authority got very confused with first the Orthodox and later the Protestant divisions from the one Church.

The question of who has rightful religious authority today, for Christians, is confused because we have so many different Christian denominations – yet Jesus instituted only one.  The break-up of the Church into denominations was not God’s original plan, intention or desire.  Jesus instituted one and only one Church!  Jesus sent out one and only one Church!  “Denomination” is not a word in the Bible.  Scripture expresses for us all to read, God’s will for the unity of faith, the unity of believers:

1) The one faith – one Lord – one Baptism –

Eph 4:1 I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love,
3 striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:
4 one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

2) Jesus prayed that all Christians be one!  He prayed first for His apostles, and then for all who would later believe in Him through their testimony:

Jn 17: 20 I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
21 so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.

3) St. Paul also wrote, urging Christians to be and to remain in one mind, in agreement – that is, keeping true in the one Gospel truth:

1 Cor 1:10  I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.

Authority was Given by Jesus Christ:

In the beginning, authority was given to the one Church, personally to Peter and then to the other apostles:

1) God gave Peter and the apostles authority to “bind and loose” in the Church He was forming and would send out to the world.  First to Peter (and the future Popes):

Mt 16:18  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
19  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

2) And again, to the Apostles generally:

Mt 18:18  Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Thus  all Christians were intended by Christ to be under the authority of Christ’s one Church, governed and served by one Pope after Peter and with one body of Bishops after the one body of the apostles.  Again, all Christians, not just “all Catholics,” were to be under the same one authority – because God’s plan was for one and only one Church.  Today Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Eastern Orthodox, etc. etc. – all Christians – even though they don’t know it or believe it to be true – all Christians ought to be gathered into Christ’s one and only one Catholic Church, gathered under the leadership and service of the one Pope and the Bishops in union with him in Christ.  Jesus formed, instituted and sent out one and only one Church, with one and only one Gospel Truth in the one and only one Holy Spirit.

The Sacrament of Marriage

Marriage has been in the world since the Garden of Eden, when God Himself brought Eve to Adam, and joined them together, and made them “one.”  The understanding and meaning of marriage was not fully revealed to mankind, however, until the Passion of Christ!  The grace of Christ poured out for the world, to gather men and women into His Church, changed forever the understanding of marriage for men and women.  The grace of Christ poured out made possible for the world the witness and the sacrament of a Christian marriage.  Marriage is a holy sacrament when it is entered by two validly baptized Christians.

For Christians, because of the meaning of Christian marriage, the Church and Christ must have an intimate part and role in their wedding.  For Catholics, this normally means that the Church (represented by at least two witnesses) and Christ (represented by the clergy of the Church, a bishop, priest or deacon) must be present to witness their wedding.  We see something of the meaning of a Christian marriage in Paul’s exhortation for a married couple, in Ephesians.  We hear that a Christian marriage is itself a picture for the world – a model for the world – a proclamation to the world of Christ’s saving love-commitment for His Church, His Bride, His Body.

Eph 5:21 Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22  Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
23  For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body.
24  As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
25  Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her
26  to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
27  that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
28  So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
29  For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church,
30  because we are members of his body.
31 “For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother
and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
32  This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
33  In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.

In Catholic sacramental theology, there are two sacraments whose holy grace given to the ones receiving the grace, is grace given for the salvation of others!  That is, the grace given to a priest or deacon when he is ordained, is grace given to empower him to serve others and help bring those others to salvation.  So also in a sacramental marriage: the grace given to the husband in marriage is to empower him to help his wife enter salvation; the grace given to the wife in marriage  is to empower her to help her husband enter salvation.

As Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”  In this way husbands are to love their wives, and by the grace of the sacrament they can do this!  They are empowered in grace to do this, and they are responsible before God to do this.

Wives also are to help their husbands to salvation, and to sanctification, and they can do so in the grace of the sacrament.  They must see to it that they allow him his headship, and in submission to him in love and reverence, to all things true, help form him in the image of Christ who must be the model for his manhood and his role as husband and father.

Conclusion:

Thus the sacramental grace of human marriage is closely bound to the mystical marriage of Christ and His Church, and both marriages, the human and the mystical, are ordered – by the grace made present by the Cross – to holiness, to sanctification, to salvation.  This is why it is so important, and so appropriate, that the Church be present – be an official witness to – a Christian wedding.  And Paul’s writing in Ephesians also makes it clear why it is so important and so appropriate that every Christian marriage, every day after the wedding, welcome Christ and His Church – and His holy truth and grace – into their home and their married life.

And again, to stress why this emphasis on the Catholic Church is so important to every Christian marriage: Christ formed and sent one and only one Church, the one now known as the Catholic Church.  Baptized Catholics have a precious gift from God, in their Baptism and also in their Catholic identity, because His one Church and that one alone has the fullness of His truth, and the full measure of His sacramental graces.  But what a person is given, a person is also responsible for!  Thus Baptized Catholics have also a solemn responsibility to accept all that Christ has entrusted to us, and to honor Him by our faithful obedience to His truth, and His mission.

For the Catholic, the “all” that is held for him or her in the Catholic Church is precious, and sacred, and powerful, and true: all the sacraments, all the Holy Scripture, all the wonderful history and legacy of the saints – all the many spiritual treasures that God has given and that the Church has accumulated over the 20 centuries of her following of the Lord in the Holy Spirit.  But if there were no other benefit in the Church for a baptized Catholic beyond the graces of a Catholic Christian marriage, it would still be worth every effort to return to the Church for that one reason.  The fullness of sacramental grace can empower the fullness of Christ in the marriage – and that would lead to the fullness of the marriage, and indeed of life itself for the husband, the wife, and the children who might bless such a marriage.

And then there is the effect of such a blessed marriage and family on a world very hungry for examples of truth, and happiness, and holy faith.  In a Catholic Christian marriage, the world ought to be able to see a picture, a model, a human example of a supernatural covenant – that holy covenant between Christ and His Church.  Paul reveals this to us, in Ephesians chapter five.  The question for us, and especially for those Catholics who still need to bring their marriage into the fullness of the Catholic faith: Are we prepared to live that truth which God shows us is true?

R. Thomas Richard

Posted by: Thomas Richard | March 8, 2015

Going Beyond “Rediscover Catholicism,” Part I

An internet search for Rediscover Catholicism by Matthew Kelly leads to countless glowing reviews of and praises for the book. Many, many Catholics have been greatly blessed and newly motivated in their faith, because of this book. It has proved to be a strong encouragement for Catholics toward a new confidence and a positive attitude concerning their faith, and their Church.

This article, and the next – “Going Beyond ‘Rediscover Catholicism,’ Part II” – are written for those who have already read the book and will not need a summary of it to understand what I write here. I write these articles, however, to point out for those who have read the book, that there are some things missing in the book – serious and important things – that Catholics need to know about, concerning the path to the vocation given us all, and encouraged in the book: our vocation to holiness. These articles, I hope, can build upon what began with Rediscover Catholicism, and can help the reader progress even further toward our holy vocation.

The Self-Centered Context of our Culture

Christ, and His Church, call us to holiness and to the perfection of charity. Mr. Kelly rightly identifies this crucially important call, our Christian vocation: “Holiness is the goal of the Christian life.” (p. 72) He also rightly places our vocation in the midst of a culture set in opposition to the vocation – a culture having prevailing philosophies of individualism (“What’s in it for me?”), hedonism (“If it feels good do it”), and minimalism (“What is the least I can do?”). (pp. 35-39). Mr. Kelly places strong emphasis on the need for Christian discipline, which opposes the prevailing hedonism, and he strongly emphasizes the need to strive even heroically to advance in the Christian life, which opposes the prevailing minimalism of the culture. That much is good. What remains, however, is the matter of individualism: “What’s in it for me?”

Mr. Kelly appeals to, rather than opposes, this prevailing cultural attitude. This is not bad in itself, because God also appeals to our personal self-interest in calling us! However, God does not stop there, and neither does traditional Catholic spirituality. The book Rediscover Catholicism does not clearly help the reader see beyond that initial appeal to self-interest, but Catholics need to know that God calls us far beyond it, to the perfection of charity fitting for the Kingdom of God.

Rediscover Catholicism’s Focus on Self

Mr. Kelly’s most strongly emphasized paths and practices to holiness, surprisingly, are characterized – perhaps unconsciously on his part – not in opposition to but consistent with the prevailing cultural philosophy of individualism, and “What’s in it for me?” The most used measure of all Christian practices that are encouraged in the book, its gold standard of religious or spiritual value for any practice, is whether or not it leads to a “better-version-of-myself.” The self is placed at the center and as the measure of the spiritual life. Some examples:

  • Concerning repentance, turning back to God: “at His side I am a better person… when I turn away from God I am turning my back on my true self.” (p. 153)
  • Concerning Confession: “The journey toward the-best-version-of-yourself is a journey away from the defects of the-present-version-of-yourself.” (p. 154) “Confession is an opportunity for you and God to work together to form a-better-version-of-yourself.” (p. 157)
  • Concerning prayer: Mr. Kelly recounts his own personal advance in prayer this way: At first, he used to pray for his personal problems, “God, I’ve got this problem…This is the situation… These are the circumstances… Then I stumbled onto the question that would change my life forever: God, what do you think I should do?”
  • Concerning participation in Holy Mass: “When you walk into Mass next Sunday, simply ask God in the quiet of your heart, ‘God, show me one way in this Mass that I can become a-better-version-of-myself this week!’… Once it is revealed to you, spend the rest of the Mass praying about how you can live that one thing in the coming week.” (p. 210)

This pervasive focus on the self, on what’s good for me, is summarized well as a spirituality of self-actualization: ultimately, “What’s in it for me?” – the very concern of secular individualism that the author rejected in the secular world. Concerning this “journey of the soul and the quest for love,” as he wrote in the book: “God invites you to embark on the adventure of unveiling and actualizing your unimagined potential.” (p. 123)

Self-Interest in Traditional Catholic Spirituality

It is important to know that the spiritual journey to holiness has been known and recognized by saints, fathers and doctors of the Church from very early days, as a journey in stages. The journey is not one life-long continuous process, as the book Rediscover Catholicism presumes. Instead, the journey to holiness is a process including three defined stages that are clearly distinct and different from one another. Recognition of the three stages is essential to any spirituality that reaches to the full attainment of holiness and the perfection of charity. The three stages have been given names, in Catholic tradition, as:

1) the stage of the Beginner, or the Purgative Stage;
2) the stage of the Progressing, or Proficient, or the Illuminative Stage;
3) the stage of the Perfect, or the Unitive Stage.

In the Beginning or Purgative Stage, the soul is self-centered. This is well-described by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153 AD). Thus it is no surprise that a Catholic book on the spiritual journey would begin with the appeal to self-interest that is predominant for all beginners on the journey. But the journey ought not stop there – and neither should the book. We are all called to holiness – to be saints – as Rediscover Catholicism rightly emphasizes. But the journey cannot continue as it began – we need to grow beyond the self-concerns of the beginning stage, if we are ever to attain God’s intention in this world.

St. Bernard recognized and described four “degrees” of love, on the spiritual journey. I will outline them here (i):

  1. In Bernard’s first degree, the person knows nothing of God. All that he loves is measured by the good it does for him, or the pleasure it brings him. This can include both things and people! He loves things, and he loves people, in the measure that they bring pleasure to him. This pre-Christian kind of love is expected for a child – but tragic in an adult.
  2. In Bernard’s second degree, the person discovers God – and learns that God is his greatest benefactor. God can do more for him, and bring him happiness and pleasures, greater than anything or anyone else! And thus he begins to love God, but he loves God for all the good that God can do for him. His love for God is mercenary, self-focused. This is identified with the traditional “Stage of the Beginner, or Purgative stage” in traditional Catholic spirituality. This is the beginning of the Christian’s relationship with God in Christ: the relationship is expected to grow beyond this stage.
  3. In Bernard’s third degree, following faithful discipleship in God’s ways and truth, following faithful walking with the Lord, the person learns of the great good of God in Himself! God is good, beautiful and true – and worthy of love – far beyond the good that he does for the person himself. God is good, and worthy of the greatest honor because of who God is, in Himself. Thus the person begins to love God as God, and not merely as his personal benefactor of the self. In this stage, however, traces of mercenary love still remain, which the person longs to overcome.
  4. In Bernard’s fourth degree, after faithful and zealous prayer, service to God, and longing to give his all to God, the person sees clearly and in its radiance the great and infinite goodness and glory of God, which overwhelm fear and concern for self. The person begins to love others, and even himself, only in God. Whether he lives or he dies, God is good in all His works. God is all, in all. Here, the love of God with one’s whole heart, mind, soul and strength becomes a human reality.

Discipline and Habit

Another very important factor in the author’s spirituality, is discipline: “The philosophy of Christ is based on discipline…” (p. 89) Mr. Kelly points to the saints – one of our most valuable resources as Catholic Christians – as both examples and teachers of discipline on the path to holiness: “Like Jesus, by their example the saints invite us to a life of discipline.” (p. 89) “The saints’ lives were firmly grounded in discipline.” “ They quietly chiseled away at the defects and weaknesses in their character. They became the-best-version-of-themselves.” (p. 91) The saints thus become examples for us, in our quest for self-improvement. Indeed this is God’s concern as well: “The will of God is that you become the-best-version-of-yourself, or in classical spiritual language, that you live a life of holiness and become a saint.” (p. 126)

The author writes that this saintly discipline must become for us, as for them, a habit of life. “Our lives change when our habits change. Think about all the heroes, leaders, champions and saints. What set them apart from their peers? They just had better habits… Their habits were helping them to become the best version of themselves, and they were acquired intentionally through the effort of discipline.” (p. 128) He continued, citing the many beautiful virtues made manifest in the saints, “patience, kindness, humility, gentleness, forgiveness, and love. Or is it their desire to explore their God-given potential?… Or maybe it’s just that they are focused on loving God and neighbor by becoming the-best-version-of-themselves. I suspect it is some combination of all of these.” (p. 132)

The roles of discipline and habit continue, in the book, with a center and focus on the self, as illustrated here:

“Find your place in salvation history. Be a saint. Be yourself. Perfectly yourself.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to become the best version of yourself. The best thing you can do for your spouse, your children, your friends, your Church, your nation, and God is to become the-best-version-of-yourself.” (p. 141)

Discipline and Habit in Traditional Catholic Spirituality

Discipline and the development of virtuous habits – or virtue itself – are also placed, in traditional Catholic spirituality, within a journey of distinct stages. Discipline is crucial in the Beginner’s or Purgative Stage, but virtue is the fruit especially in the second, the Illuminative Stage of the Proficients. St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized these qualities in the stages which he briefly described, allowing us to see the place of discipline in the first stage, but virtue in the second:

  1. the Beginning stage. Beginning the Christian life, the believer finds that most of his concern and effort is made withdrawing from sin and resisting the appetites which drive him away from charity. Beginners need to nourish and carefully foster charity to prevent its loss, and they need to avoid falling back to the ways they have just left. Attacks of temptation disturb the peace of the soul in this stage, but after struggle and perseverance, the believer can give his mind to making progress.
  2.  the Progressing stage. In this second stage, a certain measure of victory over temptation has been achieved. Most of the effort of the soul is now directed to advancing in virtue, with the concern that charity grow and become strong. This is the stage of those who are making progress in the journey.
  3. the stage of the Perfect. In this third stage, which is not static but which also involves progress, most effort is made cleaving to God, and enjoying Him. In this stage are Christians of heroic virtue, who sincerely long to leave this earth and be with Him. (ii)

St. Thomas’s separation of the growth in virtue (in the “Progressing”, or Illuminative Stage) from the place of discipline (in the “Beginning”, or Purgative Stage) is important because of the radical difference between the two stages. This will be investigated next, in “Going Beyond ‘Rediscover Catholicism,’ Part II,” but after first noting again that Rediscover Catholicism assumes a linear and incremental path to holiness, and does not recognize the crucial existence of stages at all.


notes:

i) see St. Bernard of Clairvaux, The Love of God. This is discussed further by R. Thomas Richard, The Ordinary Path to Holiness, (Alba House, 2003) p. 25 ff.
ii)  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, Q.24, a.9.

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