Fear God, Not Man

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 6C

During this past week, there’s been some news in the Catholic world, but I won’t say that I find it all that encouraging. For those who don’t know, the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been laicized, which means that he is no longer allowed to celebrate Mass or the other sacraments and should now be addressed and referred to as “Mr. McCarrick.” Ordination, of course, is permanent and cannot be removed, but the Church regulates the exercise of priestly power and of preaching, so as far as is possible, McCarrick has been removed from among the Church’s clergy. Already last summer, allegations against him of abuse became public and were found to be credible and substantiated. I definitely agree with the Vatican’s decision to laicize McCarrick, but I have no illusions that this is actually “a clear signal” that the Church will not tolerate abuse.

I don’t forget that he really should have been laicized several decades ago. I don’t forget that there is still rampant cowardice and institutionalism among his fellow clergy, those who covered for him, and those who allowed or even actively promoted his advancement as a bishop, as an archbishop, and as a cardinal of the holy Church of God, those who enabled him to remain in office long after the first big round of scandals broke in 2002. What I find dangerous and incredibly stupid and naïve about some of the reporting that I’ve heard on this, is that there are those eager to portray this as the end of the affair, finally, the end of a sad chapter of the Church’s history and the beginning of a new chapter of trust and optimism. The same thing that was said back in 2002, with new directives and safe environment training. “Oh, but we really mean it this time.” I will believe that the Vatican is taking this seriously when I actually see negative consequences for those who feign ignorance, those who failed to investigate questions when they knew they wouldn’t like the answers, those who stood by to get ahead. These are not shepherds. These are thieves and robbers that allowed wolves to have their way with the sheep.

The readings today could not be more clear. Those who do not trust in God above all, those who do not fear God more than any human being will always make compromises to just get along. They will serve their own appetites, their own desires for popularity, for ease and comfort. In my first years of the priesthood, I had to make a decision. Would I follow the subtle temptations of using the priesthood to serve my own ends? Would I remain silent on certain topics that would be difficult to communicate, difficult for people to receive? Would I fail to admonish fellow priests and clergy out of fear of how they would react or how that could affect my “career path”? Or, would I follow Christ and the laws of His Church, even if this should prove to be unpopular?

We like to think that we can have it both ways, that there will never be any real conflict between the love of God and love for my neighbor. But there are conflicts. There are times when we have to decide, Will I serve God first, above all? To correct, to admonish, to discipline, even if that means that as a parent you won’t be your child’s best friend? “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.” On account of your faithful following of Jesus Christ. “Your reward will be great in heaven, for their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.” But “woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.”

Mr. McCarrick and his allies have shown us the rotten fruit of trying to have it both ways. The Way of the Cross, the way of discipleship and following Jesus demands a decision from us. Will we serve God above all, even when that brings trials and persecution? Or will we put our own desires ahead of God’s, to just get along, and to enjoy a false and empty peace and complacency? “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” This is not the end of the McCarrick scandal. If those who are able continue to neglect correcting what needs correction, to fail in disciplining those who need discipline, the Church will continue to suffer for it. But the solution is for all of us to decide today—and every day of our lives—to serve God first, above all. To have no fear of men. So that at the end of our lives, we will have confidence to stand before the judgment seat of almighty God, and to say to Him, “I strove always to live at peace with all men, but I did not shy away from the conflict and the strife that comes from remaining faithful to Your Word above all.”

Pursued by Mercy to Share God’s Work

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 5C

People often ask me who cooks for us priests at the rectory. For the most part, we cook for ourselves. And, of the three of us, I would venture to say that Fr. Smith is the best cook. There have often been times when he’ll make extra food and allow me to share his meal, and it has all been very good, even the duck and goose that he prepared, except for the stray BBs, which were harder to chew. Now imagine for a moment that this is the scenario. I come into the rectory one day, and I notice wonderful smells coming from the kitchen. As I enter the kitchen, I find that Fr. Smith has prepared a feast, and there’s even an extra plate setting out for me, and he invites me to take some food. But instead of getting my plate ready and sitting down to eat, I say to him, “Depart from me, for I am a hungry man.” Fr. Smith should be more than a little confused at this reaction. Of course, he already knew that I was hungry, and that’s precisely why he told me to eat. So he’ll probably come to the conclusion that I must be fasting, that for some reason, I want to stay hungry, even though the solution to my hunger is ready at hand.

As we look at our readings today, if God were ever capable of being confused, He should be completely dumbfounded at the reactions he gets from Isaiah and from Simon Peter. Isaiah says, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” But it is the King, the Lord of hosts, who visits him precisely to cleanse him from his sins and his uncleanness. God alone can relieve us of our sins, so why does it surprise us so much when God longs to draw close to us sinners, especially when we have wandered far from him? God loves us with infinite mercy, and so he pursues the lost and wandering sheep more diligently than the best of shepherds. Simon Peter says to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And Jesus must be thinking to himself, “Of course, I know that you are a sinful man. That’s the whole reason that I’m here, to save and to call sinners to a more abundant life. All the more reason that I refuse to leave you, because I alone can bear your sins.” And he says to Peter, “Do not be afraid.”

Thinking that we are too sinful to approach God or to approach and enter his Church, too sinful even to meet God in His mercy in the sacrament of Reconciliation, this is a false humility and a temptation from the devil, whose only desire is to keep us away from God. Christ came to save sinners. He sees our need and knows that He alone can save us and bring us relief. God not only wants us to approach Him, but He Himself pursues us with His mercy. This is the grace of God, the free, unmerited, often unlooked-for, gift of God’s forgiveness. The gift that changed Paul from the worst of sinners, persecuting the Church of God, into the greatest of the Apostles, who carried the Gospel to the nations. This is the free, unmerited grace and mercy of God offered to each one of us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Even as we continue to resist, as Isaiah and St. Peter and St. Paul did, and as loved ones of our families and friends continue to wander, God continues to pursue us and to say to each of us, “It is precisely because you are sinful that I will not depart, I will not stop offering My forgiveness.”

The other line from today’s Gospel that would be bound to confuse is of course Jesus commissioning St. Peter. This carpenter from Nazareth has just showed Peter, James, and John that He is better at catching fish, even though they’ve spent their lives at the trade. Then he says to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Now if I were Peter, I’d be thinking to myself, sarcastically, “Yeah, okay. Nothing to worry about here. Catching men sounds a lot easier than catching fish, right? I think we’re gonna need a bigger net.” But these fishermen have already begun to experience that Jesus is precisely where the ordinary meets the extraordinary, where our humanity is taken up into His divinity.

Jesus can make a man of unclean lips into the Prophet of God’s holy Word. He can make the persecutor of His Church into the most productive of His Apostles. Jesus can make a sinful, ordinary fisherman into the Rock on which He builds His Church. Jesus is where the ordinary meets the extraordinary. Jesus wants to use your mouth to spread His Word today. He wants to use your feet to carry Him to every person that you meet. He wants to use your weakness to show His strength. Jesus is still calling members of our own messed-up families to serve Him at His holy altar, to bear witness to Him in the world, in our schools, at work, in politics. Jesus is calling all of us to become His fishers of men today. If you doubt that He could call you, I assure you that He has already called and converted many people worse than you. “When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.” Jesus is where the ordinary meets the extraordinary. If you ever get tired of chasing money or a career, chasing pleasure, honor and fame, if you ever get tired of living an ordinary life, Jesus will be waiting.

Back to the Basics

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 4C

As you know already, this upcoming May, we will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Dedication of this Cathedral Church of St. Joseph. I’m still amazed at times to think of the sacrifices people made back then and the type of vision that they had to build this Cathedral, and to build it where they did, with such a commanding view from this hill. I still remember my first time flying in an airplane for my oldest brother’s wedding, and as we were getting back into Sioux Falls at night, we were all supposed to watch out the windows to see the spires of this Cathedral lit up. It’s not surprising, then, to know that for many Catholics and non-Catholics in the area, when they think of the Catholic Church, they look to this Cathedral.

And so we also get quite a few calls from Catholics and non-Catholics about strange occurrences in people’s homes, possible demonic activity or haunted houses. I’ve heard that in recent years there has been a general rise throughout the country and throughout the world in the number of requests for exorcisms. I actually don’t find it all that surprising, when you remember that—more and more—people are not being baptized, or that even those Catholics and Christians who are baptized don’t really practice their faith in real ways, or they even live in ways that are contrary to God’s plan and His commandments. What I do find surprising is the amount of ignorance among Catholics and Christians about the very basics of the spiritual life. What does it mean to be in the state of sanctifying grace? To be free from unabsolved mortal sin? What does it mean to make an integral or complete Confession of sins?

This is what St. Paul is getting at in our second reading. It’s back to the basics. In writing to the Corinthians, he has addressed their concerns about various spiritual gifts and charisms, but here in this thirteenth chapter that we’ve probably all heard at weddings, he’s getting to the heart of the matter. He presents as the “still more excellent way” the very ordinary way of remaining in God’s grace and love. “If I speak in human and angelic tongues… if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge… if I have all faith so as to move mountains… [even] if I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” The love that St. Paul is talking about is the theological virtue of divine charity, the gift of God that is given to us at our baptism that makes us holy, what theologians will call “sanctifying grace.” Without this grace of God, which can be lost through mortal sin, these other charisms and spiritual gifts of tongues, prophecies, faith, knowledge, healings, sacrifice, they profit us nothing.

When people call about a house blessing or an exorcism, there’s usually a standard list of questions we ask. Have they been baptized? Did they ever receive this foundation and gift of God’s grace that is the most important protection for us against the works of Satan? Do they practice their faith, do they pray and maintain that relationship with God? Do they keep holy the Lord’s day and gather every Sunday to worship God? We also ask about any regular sources of grave sin. Is there drug use? Is there abuse of alcohol? Are you living with someone who is not your spouse as if they were? Now these might seem like rather personal questions to ask in a first conversation with someone, but to assess the spiritual situation, these are the basics. More and more common now are sins against chastity and addictions due to materials on the Internet. We would also ask as best we can about other psychological factors that can be mistaken for something spiritual.

Now if we find out that the person is Catholic and hasn’t been practicing their faith, we would try and guide them to make an integral Confession, in which they would confess all grave sins of which they are aware and which haven’t been absolved in previous Confessions, and the number of times or some estimate of how often they’ve committed those sins, so that they can get back into the state of grace and the spiritual life, raised up from the spiritual death of grave sin. One good Confession is much more powerful than any number of exorcisms.

But this ordinary practice of the sacraments, the ordinary means of our salvation, this “still more excellent way” of remaining in God’s love and grace is not very flashy. It requires from us actual faith, perseverance in prayer and in obedience to God’s commandments, and not just a desire for novelty or quick fixes. And we can be scandalized by the ordinary, just like the people of Nazareth were scandalized by the seemingly ordinary background of Jesus—whom they watched grow up among them—just as they were scandalized that He would extend the message of salvation to the ordinary, common, unclean people of the Gentiles, the non-Jews, like the widow of Zarephath or Naaman the Syrian.

But these ordinary ways, going to Confession, making sure that we’re in the state of grace to receive Holy Communion, giving God His due thanks and praise by gathering for Mass on every Sunday and holy day of obligation, following God’s commandments instead of insisting on our own ways, these are the very ordinary means that God has given us to abide in His grace and love, to enjoy the guidance and protection of His holy angels. If we really choose to live the basics well, to live as ordinary, faithful Catholics in the midst of an unbelieving world, we will become an extraordinary sign and beacon of hope, much like this Cathedral set upon a hill. Those who see us should be able to recognize, here is a real faith, here is a simple faith that is able even to touch God.