Sunday, September 4, 2016

St. Gregory the Great, our Patron

Happy feast of St. Gregory the Great, our patron! 

 At first glance, we might think that it could be difficult to relate to someone who died over 1400 years ago. 

(Now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta, for example, is a 20th century saint that we are all familiar with. She only passed away in 1997. We can picture her and have watched and heard her speak. We know her story: she dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. She is a contemporary saint, a saint familiar to us. You may have even met her. Many of the priests in our Diocese met her when she visited the Diocese of Trenton on June 18, 1995. 

St. Gregory (540-604 A.D.), on the other hand, seems to be a more distant figure, a kind of other worldly figure, who at first glance does not seem to have much to say to us who live in a 2016 American suburb. In fact, if you google St. Gregory the Great, you are more likely to find links to information about our parish or carnival than you are about the man himself! 

Furthermore, in addition to the fact that he lived over 1400 years ago, he also was a great figure of world history and for that reason seems ‘above’ us. He was “the Great”. He is one of only 2-4 popes in history who have had the title “the Great” attached to them because of their important role in history. 

What are some of the great things he accomplished on the world stage? 

He taught monks in his own monastery in Rome and then sent them as missionaries to England to help strengthen Christianity on that island. 

He led many people in Rome through a difficult time: the Roman Empire was in decline; there were disease, poverty, and hunger everywhere; the Lombards were invading and trying to destroy Rome. St. Gregory not only offered spiritual guidance to the people of Rome, but he even helped to bring about civil order. At one point he had to send out armies to defend the city from the Lombards. At another point, when the army was about to revolt due to lack of pay, he paid them from the Church’s treasury. He negotiated a peace settlement with the invaders at one time. He fed the Roman citizens when the civil authorities were unable to. 

Also, St. Gregory was a source of unity in the Church in his time, and his teachings and writings were foundational for the Church until the middle of the 8th century. 

Most of us do not spend too much time thinking about the Church of the 6th century, like he did. But there are two main qualities of his life, that were very important to him, that we should imitate in our lives as well, and that can serve as guideposts for us whenever we see his name in the thousands of ways we do in the course of the year in our parish: on our stationery letterhead, on our school logo or bulletin cover, when the name “St. Greg’s” is mentioned in a conversation with a neighbor. 

First, he was a humble man. He came up with a new title for the pope --- “Servant of the Servants of God” ---- stressing not the earthly power of the pope --- which at that time and later into the Middle Ages the popes had a lot of --- but rather the pope’s role of servant of people and servant of the members of the Church community and of the poor. Again, among popes of that period his humility and simplicity of style stood out. He even transformed the luxurious Lateran Palace, where popes lived then, into a kind of monastery during his papacy. 

In a homily written by St. Gregory found in the Office of Readings for St. Gregory, the saint speaks not of his many, various accomplishments but rather of the struggles he faced in carrying out God’s will. For example, he did not think he was a competent preacher. He had difficulty practicing what he preached. He states that he was slothful and negligent, talked idly, and was distracted by worldly matters and problems (From a homily on Ezekiel by St. Gregory the Great, Pope, Office of Readings for September 3). How many of us would be so honest about our faults? 

Secondly, St. Gregory was a man of prayer. He was the monk-pope. He was first a monk before he became a pope. He built 6 monasteries and a seventh one was his home in Rome that he turned into a monastery. He stressed the importance of contemplating God and meditating on the life of Christ. He exhorted people to combat vice and sin in their lives, to grow in virtue and to embrace the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us. He was a great teacher of the spiritual life. 

For demonstrating these qualities and many, many more good ones; for all of the writings and homilies he has left us (more writings than we could read in our lifetimes!); for his complete commitment to Jesus Christ and to prayer, we say that we are so glad that he is our patron! 

St. Gregory the Great, pray for us!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

 It’s very quiet here tonight (the Wednesday before Thanksgiving).  On one level this a little depressing because usually our campus is busy with some type of activity.  As a priest who was once assigned here once said, every evening he would look out his window, and there were always cars in the parking lot.  Tonight there are no cars on the lot though--- with the exception of the two parish trucks, a van waiting to take donated food to Mt. Carmel Guild, and one other car (I don’t know who the car belongs to).  But on another level this is perfectly fine, because it means that people are spending time with their families.  As the “domestic Church,” the family is the best place for children to learn the Faith.  In the home, family members learn to practice humility, forgiveness, charity, and selflessness: parents with their children, children with their parents, brothers with their sisters and vice versa, etc.  In the home and in family life, people learn about God. 

The other evening I heard a radio commentator refer to Thanksgiving as a “family institution.”  This opened my mind to a whole new insight about Thanksgiving.  We have many institutions in our society: churches, government, schools, businesses, and social clubs and organizations.  Thanksgiving is a special, privileged day though for the all-important institution of the family; this is why this holiday is so meaningful for us and enjoyable!  In many ways and with few exceptions, the other institutions of society defer to the family on this day and “get out of the way.”  One notable exception is the “Church;”  we will have a Mass tomorrow morning at 9:00 am which many people will attend for example, and the prayers of the Church are continually offered for its people every day, for example in the Liturgy of the Hours.


But again, on Thanksgiving the family is “front and center.”  I hope you, your family and all your loved ones have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Same Sex Attraction: What is the Church's Teaching?

Can a person be “homosexual” and Catholic?  On Tuesday, October 20, our Adult Faith Formation team for its first “Tuesday Night Live” session showed the documentary film The Third Way, which explores the Catholic Church’s approach to loving persons with same sex attraction.  I hosted a Q & A session afterward which you can listen to here. You can also watch the short movie here.

The Church teaches that persons with same sex attraction should be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” (paragraph 2358) and should not be discriminated against unjustly. They are called to have a freedom of heart that allows them to have peace at the core of their being.  Just like everyone else they are called to chastity.  

Contrary to the orthodoxy of our culture and of our day, the Church also teaches though that while same sex attraction, the desire, is not in and of itself sinful (After all, a person cannot be held accountable for something that is not within their control), it is “disordered” (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2358; for a summary of the Church’s teaching, see also paragraphs 2357 and 2359).  The reason for calling it “disordered” is that the desire of same sex attraction does not lead the person to carry out acts that lead to true fulfillment and human flourishing.   

It is important to note that the Church separates the inner feeling/attraction from the homosexual act. The act, commonly expressed as “acting out,” could be in thought, word or deed, and that is where the sin would lie, in that area of choice in the mind and will of the person. 

Keep in mind that “homosexual” is not the best way to identify a person. That term makes it seem as if the fact that the person is attracted toward members of the same sex is the most important part of their identity and should dominate their whole life.  This is typical in our culture, isn’t it, where sex and sexuality is the most important reality in life.   But I shouldn’t see a “homosexual”; that means that I am only interested in characterizing that person by the way they would like to have sex or relate to others “sexually.”  Rather I should see a person.  I see a person who may be struggling with same sex attraction.  Being same sex attracted is just one of a number of qualities and characteristics of a person, and by far not the most important one. 

One of my moral theology professors in seminary taught us to look at the issue of sexual attraction on a “spectrum.”  A person in fact could lie on many different points on a spectrum when it comes to whom they are attracted. A person could be exclusively same sex attracted or exclusively attracted to members of the opposite gender.  A person could be strongly attracted to persons of the same gender and less attracted but still attracted to some degree to persons of the opposite gender, and vice versa.  The issue of how sexual attraction comes to be present in a person - where those feelings originated and how they developed -  is a complex psychological issue, with shades of gray, and persons should not just be lumped into one of two categories so that it is easier for us to judge them.

In a sound bite culture in which discourse, if it occurs at all, takes place though flashing, colorful lights and the expression of raw emotions and gut feelings, it is difficult to make all of these kinds of distinctions that the Church makes with regard to the issue of same sex attraction.  But we must try because Jesus commands us to do so.  “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” he said (Mk 16:15).  And we must preach the Gospel not ashamedly but confidently and joyfully.





Friday, November 6, 2015

Forgiveness

Someone calls you a nasty name.  A person cuts you off and swerves in front of you on the road just to show off.  A friend loses interest in your life and does not call you for five years.   Each of us has experienced these types of situations and the emotional pain that was caused at the hands of others.

The question is: how will I respond? 

Forgiveness is a choice that I make, not a choice that the person who hurt me makes.  We cannot always wait for someone to ask for forgiveness before we forgive them.  They may never ask for it. They might not even be sorry.  They might not even be aware that they hurt you. They might think they did nothing wrong.  If we wait for the person to understand what they did to us, or expect them to change in some way, we may be very disappointed.

When it comes to these types of painful situations, I need to determine my own future. I “call the shots” now, not the other person. I make the choice of what to do next, not him.

There are steps to forgiveness.

First, I must make the decision to forgive the other person.  I make an act of the will.  I must say it to myself and mean it as much as I can: “I forgive x.”  This is an enormous victory if we are able to do this.  If we can make this simple statement, then I am well on my way to forgive the person.

Emotions do not heal right away, but they will heal in time.

Second, think about the person who offended you and what they did.  Be open about your wound and pray about it with God.  Healing cannot happen if we do not open the wound before God.  As someone once said, a surgeon cannot heal the illness if he does not know what is wrong with the patient.

As we think about the person who hurt us, we may even get to the point where we feel pity for her.  Chances are, when they said that awful comment to us, they were not in a very good place in their life.  People who are happy and fulfilled do not say those types of things.  There must have been something wrong in the person’s heart and in the circumstances of her life.  I should begin to have mercy on her.

Life on Earth is short, and you have many things to accomplish before you move on to the next life. There are many other people who need your love, care and attention.  

Forgive.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Christmas Creep

I’m not referring to a guy at the courtesy counter of a department store who refuses to allow you to return a holiday gift you purchased.  “Christmas creep” – a phrase I learned just yesterday - refers to the phenomenon that here in the United States, Christmas starts before Halloween!  According to surveys conducted by the National Retail Federation, 40% of consumers say they begin holiday shopping before Halloween. 


As people of faith, we need to put Christmas in perspective and take a moment to reflect on what is happening here.  You’ve heard the slogan: “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  The Knights of Columbus each year conduct a “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign.  I can’t wait to put my “Keep Christ in Christmas” magnet on my car.  Originally I was planning to put it on in mid-November.  But after listening to the radio yesterday I think I should put it on right now!


My intention here is not to condemn eager, ambitious retailers competing in a free market economy or shoppers looking to get a head start in an extremely busy season of the year.  Rather I just want to say that to celebrate Christmas in the way God designed it, we must take into account the Church liturgical calendar. The Catholic Church defines very clearly when Christmas begins and ends.  The four week period of Advent begins this year on Sunday, November 29.  Advent as you know is not a celebration of Christmas, but a spiritual preparation for Christmas. Everyone knows that you can’t have success in life without preparation.  The Kansas City Royals, who just won the World Series, did not just start practicing a few days ago, run out onto the field and win the World Series.  It took a very long time of practice and preparation.  Similarly, an event such as allowing Jesus Christ to be born in us requires four weeks of prayer and meditation – time to focus and get ready.


Also, Christmas as you know in the Catholic Church is not just one day.  Christmas Day is part of an eight day period known as an “Octave.”  One of the Eucharistic prayers used during the Christmas octave continues to say “celebrating the most sacred day” referring to Christmas Day even on, say, day 6 of the Octave. 

Then, the Christmas season continues until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year falls on Sunday, January 10, 2016.  It is natural and more human to continue and prolong the celebration of something good.  My uncle once told me that he always remembers that when growing up, in the days after Christmas, the family would travel around to different relatives’ houses; everyone showed one another what gifts they received.  It is unnatural to celebrate a great moment quickly, rub your hands and then move onto something else. 



As Christmas creep comes upon us, let’s be sure that it does not cut the season short!  Christmas Day is the beginning of a season and not the end of one!

Purgatory

What in the world is Purgatory?  Who goes there?  People often ask me these questions (both adults and children).  None of our Protestant friends believe in it.  What does the Catholic Church teach about it?

The Church’s teaching on Purgatory is both straightforward and open to Mystery.  It is the “state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of Heaven” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 210). 

A couple questions are left open from this definition. First, theologians debate what a “state” is.  Does that mean that it is not a place?  Where are the souls in Purgatory?  Secondly, what exactly does the purification entail?  We know it is a state/place of suffering and longing, because the soul is not in Heaven yet.  But does that mean a type of painful suffering, including flames of fire, as many have traditionally believed?  Or more of a purification of desires?  Or the suffering of longing for God and his love but not being there yet?  These questions are too large to go into detail in this blog post.

Purgatory by Annibale Carracci

What we know clearly from this definition is that souls in Purgatory are ‘in a good place’ insofar as they are in God’s friendship; they are just not ready to be with God yet. They will be in Heaven one day.  Because they know they will be in Heaven, they journey with hope.

We in the Church who are still here on Earth “are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers” for them, “especially the Eucharistic sacrifice.” 

There is a great tradition and devotion here at St. Gregory’s regarding Mass intentions. You should see the lines of people in the rectory office and even out the door when the Mass book opens each year!  When the office opened that day, there were four or five people waiting on line at the front door!  People want Masses for specific dates and intentions, and I am so pleased that there is such a fervor here for Mass intentions, as there are in many parishes. 



In addition to prayer and Mass intentions, we also help souls in Purgatory by “almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance” (Compendium, number 211).  “Almsgiving” refers to material or financial assistance given to persons in need or a cause, when prompted by Christian charity.  We believe that we can help persons journey through Purgatory more quickly with our prayers.

I saw that a recent DVD referred to Purgatory as the “forgotten Church.”  On All Souls Day, and as we prepare for the Jubilee Year of Mercy called for by Pope Francis, may we always remember our brothers and sisters in Purgatory, those who are friends of God and have the hope of being with Him in Paradise one day.