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Archive for March, 2010

The Via Crucis

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory (Luke 24:26).”

The events of Holy Week are a stark reminder of the terrible sufferings endured by Christ for the sake of our salvation. The rejection, the condemnation, the mocking, the beatings, the spittle, the scourging, the taunting, the crown of thorns, the nails, the spear – all of this was suffered by Christ out of love for you and me. These things were horrible, but necessary. If there was another way, Christ would have travelled that route. But there was no other way. To enter his glory, and to make possible our sharing in that glory, the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross, was required.

Every serious follower of Jesus Christ knows that the steps of the Via Crucis must be retraced in their own life. This reality is sobering but not unexpected. St. Peter, whose personal Via Crucis concluded upside down on a cross, wrote these words to the Christian people: “Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly (1 Peter 4:12-13).”

For each believer, the “sufferings of Christ” take a unique form in their own life. One disciple may suffer quite openly from sickness or personal tragedy. Another may bear the weight of an unseen and hidden interior trial. Some may struggle with doubt or temptation. Some may feel the effects of weakness and failure. Too many must bear the stinging rebukes of those hostile to the Gospel of Christ. But each who claims the name of Christian must join the Master on Calvary.

The Church too must continually live out the events of Holy Week. In our present time and in our present culture, we see the Church driven to her knees by the impact of the abuse scandal. We read of her teachings being mocked and her leaders being ignored. She bears constantly the sorrow of sins committed by her own sons and daughters. But so it has always been for the Church and so it shall always be. The road of suffering is the road of salvation.

“This saying is trustworthy: If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him (2 Timothy 2:11-12).” During Holy Week, and indeed throughout the weeks of our lives, Jesus asks that we follow him to Calvary. But if we follow him to the ignominy of the cross, so too shall we be with him in the glory of the resurrection. Good Friday holds no meaning unless followed by Easter. Neither do the sufferings we endure have value unless they are united to those of Christ. The Via Crucis is in reality a highway to healing, peace and eternal happiness. The Way of the Cross is the only road to heaven.

Be assured of my prayers,

Fr. Steve

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Dorothy liked the Scarecrow best. She admitted as much when, before clicking the ruby-red slippers, she told that lovable bag-of-straw that it was him she would miss most. Dorothy learned a lot during her adventure in Oz. And if you or I were to follow Dorothy and her friends down the Yellow Brick Road, we too might find some lessons of real value in the virtues represented by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion. So get your Munchkin on and let’s investigate.

Each of Dorothy’s friends was in search of some part of themselves which seemed to be missing. Recall that the Scarecrow was lacking a brain. Missing from the personage of the Tin Man was a heart. And the Cowardly Lion? That poor guy was badly in need of some courage. My thesis here is that you and me, if we are to live out our Christianity with impact, also are in need of a brain, a heart and some courage.

We’ll look at the Scarecrow first. By saying that he lacked a brain, what he really longed for was the virtue of prudence. Prudence is the ability to make right judgments, to look at a quandary, evaluate the realities, and make a decision in accordance with what is rational and good. Not unlike common sense, prudence tends to be not so common. Why? We have a real tendency to make decisions based on emotion rather than on reason. “Follow your heart” is not particularly good counsel. You see, our emotions and our attractions can be totally out of sync with reality. My heart may be telling me to buy that speedy, red sports car I’ve always wanted, but if I am a father of four with bills to pay and food to provide, my heart is not leading me to the truth. Consider another example. Hopefully our souls would be filled with compassion if a young friend of ours found herself alone and pregnant. But if that friend, in fear and desperation, decides to abort her baby, she is not thinking prudently. For the reality of the situation is that she is carrying a precious human being who is deserving of life. Prudence judges rightly that abortion is not in accord with reason and right acting. So in all of our decisions, whether big or small, profound or simple, prudence is an essential virtue.

The Tin Man wanted a heart. But by looking at the self-giving and compassionate way he treated his companions, we can see that he was already filled with love. What about you and me? Our love is proved or disproved by actions. If we live for ourselves, love is lacking; if we live for others, our love overflows. I often cite the time I was working a Confirmation Mass and observed a young altar boy sacrifice a cushy kneeling pad so that his friends could kneel on it. The boy knelt on the hard marble. That is love! And oh by the way, when the Tin Man shed tears, they not only made him rusty, they also manifested the fact that he was indeed a man of love.

“If I were King of the forest . . .” Sorry, I can’t help breaking into song when thinking of the Cowardly Lion. But boy, he really did need some courage, didn’t he? The others were counting on him to stand strong and defend them, but he was a pretty frightened feline. The Lion just wanted to run away. Maybe there are times when God needs us, but we too want to run away. It takes courage to stand up for a friend when others are tearing her down. It takes courage to defend the Church when others are rejecting her precepts. It takes courage to do what is right, when so many others are doing what is wrong (and seemingly getting away with it). What it takes is courage. How do we strengthen the virtue of courage within us? Like with our muscles, we must exercise our courage. So each time you stand up for a friend, your courage increases. When you pay a cost for doing what is right, you grow in courage. And let’s be perfectly clear, it indeed takes a lot of courage to live as a Christian in today’s world.

Well, I believe we owe Dorothy and her friends a debt of gratitude. By following them down the Yellow Brick Road, our understanding of the virtues has matured. So maybe we can finish here with a little prayer:

“God our Father, we love and praise you. We thank you for making us disciples of your Son. Please grant that we be filled with prudence, love and courage. May we always stand strong in your service. And through your presence in our lives, may your will be done and your kingdom flourish. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Be assured of my prayers,

Fr. Steve

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Freedom in Christ

“For freedom Christ set us free, so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1).”

Freedom is a precious gift. I was reminded of this some years ago when I visited Berlin with several seminary classmates. We saw vestiges of the Nazi and Communist regimes there. We stood beneath the Brandenburg Gate and walked along the site of the former Berlin Wall. We also spent time at the Checkpoint Charlie museum and among exhibits which recall the heroic efforts of many Berliners to pass over, under and through that Wall. Living under Communist tyranny, their nation divided, East Germans longed to escape to the democracies of Western Europe. Their desire for freedom was so great that they were willing to risk everything – including their very lives – to obtain that freedom. But they had to surmount the Wall.

Political freedom is a profound gift indeed. But there is an even greater freedom: the freedom that comes with being in Christ. What separates us from that life in Christ is sin. Our sinful choices are a type of slavery, keeping us bound and unable to enjoy the freedom Christ offers. To be in Christ we must surmount the wall of sin which separates us. Christ’s mercy and compassion are the passages to freedom. Christ is the gate and the sacraments a door. In particular, our Lord has given us the Sacrament of Reconciliation through which we pass from bondage to freedom.

What a precious gift is the Sacrament of Penance! Particularly in this season of Lent, the Church warmly recommends we humbly confess our sins and receive absolution. But many people are either too ashamed or too afraid to make that passage from slavery to freedom. Though their hearts long for the freedom Christ offers, they remain bound on the wrong side of the wall. Perhaps that is you. But do not be afraid.

On the very night when he had risen from the dead, Christ appeared to the apostles, the first priests, and he gave them the authority to absolve from sin with the power of the Spirit (John 20:19-23). As a priest, I never cease to be deeply moved by the humility and courage of those who unburden their souls in the confessional. I myself go to Confession at least once a month, often more frequently. Like you, I do not always find it easy to admit my sinfulness and swallow my pride. But to be set free of our sin, what words can adequately describe the wonder of that gift?

Please go to confession before Easter arrives. If it’s been a long time since you’ve been there, all the more reason to go. Allow me to make several comments in an attempt to alleviate any fears you may have:

  1. Christ came to earth to reconcile the human race and forgive our sins. There is no sin we can commit which Christ does not hunger to forgive. Never believe that your actions have taken you beyond the saving reach of God.
  2. The priest, a sinner himself, is the human instrument of God’s mercy. If you are worried that the priest will think worse of you when you admit your sins, please know that we actually think more of you. A humble confession is a beautiful thing.
  3. Sin places a terrible weight upon the soul. Confession of that sin removes the weight, and as scripture indicates, turns our “mourning into dancing (Ps 30).”
  4. God doesn’t care so much about where we’ve been, but only about where we are going. It is never too late to turn away from sin and toward the smiling face of Christ.
  5. Once confessed, our sins are gone forever. God literally forgets them. Having been forgiven, our sins can harm us no more.
  6. Confessing sins that you fear you may commit again does not make you a hypocrite. Even the greatest sinners spent their lifetimes battling against certain sins.
  7. God’s love for you is not dependent on how many sins you have or have not committed or upon the gravity of those sins. You are his beloved child.

Maybe there is a sin which you have always been afraid to confess, a sin that has stolen your happiness and your peace. Do not be afraid. Christ came for freedom and he longs to set you free. Confession is the gift that makes that happen. Remember that after a lifetime of sin, even the good thief, hanging in crucifixion alongside of Christ, was set free and promised paradise. Those beautiful words of the priest, “I absolve you from your sins,” will free you as well. Do not hesitate. Christ is waiting to give you his mercy. Allow that mercy to fill your heart.

Be assured of my prayers,

Fr. Steve

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A little Annoyance

I know they are not rational creatures, but I’m pretty sure that toilets don’t like me. From the time as a kid when I had to fish my Miraculous Medal out of the bowl to the present circumstances when the jakes nearest my office backs up more frequently than a centerfielder on a lousy baseball team, I’ve spent the course of my life in a running battle with indoor plumbing. Consider the following:

(1) On the first ship I was assigned to in the Coast Guard, the sanitary vacuum system malfunctioned with the force of a small volcano and spewed – well – something like molten magna all over the bulkheads (walls) of a particular vessel washroom. Crewmembers had to use emergency breathing apparati to clean the mess.

(2) At Erie TEC Retreat #10 (during which, oh by the way, I was the assistant spiritual director), a urinal exploded on the Saturday morning of the retreat and sent sheets of water cascading onto the boys room floor. If it wasn’t for some heroic plumber named “Steve” (his name was monogrammed above his shirt pocket), who waded in and stemmed the flow, we’d have been in a bad way for continuing the retreat. I’m pretty sure that was the only day of his career when Steve jumped out of his plumbing truck to a standing ovation and cries of “We love you.”

(3) Throughout the course of months at one of my former rectory assignments, I dipped my hand into the waters of the toilet tank to fix the flushing mechanism more than the church ladies dipped their hands into the holy water fonts. But try as I might to get the chain length just right for efficient flushing, I never did succeed.

I could go on, but you’re probably thinking, please don’t. Anyway, there is a point to be made.

Whether battles with plumbing or battles with mosquitoes or battles with your little brother or battles with whatever or whoever, there will always be things and people in life that test your patience and your perseverance. Life, you may have discovered, can get a little annoying at times. But don’t let the annoyance win! Each of these moments of patience-testing annoyance provides a wonderful opportunity to turn your eyes to Jesus. Each of these irritating episodes of exasperation – whether great or small – offers a splendid occasion to unite your sufferings with His.

Don’t underestimate what the Lord can do with these simple offerings of self-control. And don’t discount how the exercise of virtue involved in such offerings molds a Christian’s will into a disciplined, well-trained entity. The saints have always been quick to tell us that if we can control our will in little things, we will be well prepared when the real temptations roll around. This holy season of Lent, of course, is a particularly graced time to exercise our patience and forbearance. Why not give it a try?

So the next time the toilet overflows . . . well . . . you’ll know what to do.

God bless and be assured of my prayers,

Fr. Steve

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The Gift of God

“If you knew the gift of God . . . (John 4:10):” Jesus offers these words to the Samaritan woman he meets at Jacob’s well. The words are not so much a rebuke as an invitation. She seeks water. He is offering “living water.” She has spent a lifetime vainly trying to fill the empty void within her heart. Jesus desires nothing more than to make that void overflow with love. “Could he possibly be the Messiah (v. 29)?” wonders the woman. He is indeed. She opens her heart, living water rises within it, and her life is changed forever.

Lent is a season of filling the void within. The scriptures, symbols and sacraments of Lent point to a Divine generosity beyond our ability to fathom. They invite us to drink deeply from the waters of salvation. But do we recognize “the gift of God?”

Remember St. Augustine? He was a young man of sharp intelligence and a plenitude of gifts. Yet his heart was restless and unsatisfied. He searched everywhere to find meaning in his life and to discover the font of happiness. Each road he traveled led him closer to despair than fulfillment. But throughout Augustine’s journey, God was inviting. Then finally it happened: Augustine heard the invitation of Christ and he answered. His heart was filled and overflowed in a life of remarkable service to God and Church. Augustine could say from the depths of his being: “Our hearts are restless until they rest [in God].” And so they are.

Do you know the gift of God? Do I?

We spend much of our life in a vain chase after shadows and drifting sands. We drink but are not satisfied, seek but do not find. Yet, as Pope John Paul II was keen to remind us, all of the deepest desires of the human heart are fulfilled in Christ. In fact, they are fulfilled only in Christ. The invitation is ours. The living waters of God well up from within the depths of our very being. We have only to drink.

Be assured of my prayers,

Fr. Steve

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