Understanding the Virtue of Penance and How to Grow in It

In the readings for sexagesimal Sunday (II Cor 11:19-12:9), St. Paul boasts of his weakness and in so doing glorifies the power of Christ to overcome all human conditions… ultimately death itself.

It’s not often that we, boast of our weakness… ‘would that we might share such stories with each other more frequently to magnify Christ.  But there is one field in which we do still, experience this… The Sacrament of Penance.  There, in the quiet of the confessional, we admit our smallness, weakness, sinfulness… and in that very act of trusting admission we imply (hopefully) that Jesus can forgive us, heal us, and renew us in hope for the future.  

How appropriate during this time of preparation for Lent that we might pause to focus on the sacrament that so marks that holy season.  

Though we usually refer to it as confession, because that’s what we do in the sacrament.  The Church formally calls the sacrament Penance highlighting the virtue that’s at work:

The Catechism of Trent identifies some of the subtleties of the virtue.  It begins with the obvious… that penance is an anguish of soul because we become aware of our sin.

But the fathers then take an interesting turn that is so important, and often forgotten:

“Penance, however, in those who repent, must be preceded by faith without which no man may turn to God.”  Our Anguish is thus always couched in our belief in and encounter with the God who is love itself.  The CCC of St. JPII expresses this faith beautifully referencing St. Clement of Rome: “Let us fix our eyes on Christ’s blood and understand how precious it is to the Father, for, poured out for our salvation, it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance.”

Picking back up with Trent: “No one can deny that it is a virtue to be sorrowful at the time, in the manner, and to the extent which are required.  To regulate sorrow in this manner belongs to the virtue of penance.  …Some conceive of a sorrow which bears no proportion to their crimes… Others, on the contrary, give themselves to such melancholy and grief, as utterly to abandon all hope of salvation… Penance, therefore, as a virtue, assists us in restraining within the bounds of moderation our sense of sorrow.

The eighteenth century theologian, Cardinal Alfonso Capecelatro describes this virtue in another way pointing out that the happiness of the world is marked by exceptional highs and its sorrows marked by the dejected lows. Secular man oscillates between these with exhausting frequency, “On the other hand, the habitual state of the man who is living according to the mind of Christ is, or should be, one of abiding peace which comes from the moderation of all things and the hope of the life to come; I say peace, not happiness, for happiness is the exclusion of pain and sorrow, wile peace does but lighten them and help us bear them with patience.  Circumscribed by Christian law this peace may be joyous or sad.  And thus there is a Christian joy and a Christian sadness.”

So our confessions should be rooted in this peace… a peace that flows from faith in the merciful God… a peace regulated by the virtue of penance.  

But the Word of God… in this case “Penance” …As Sexagesima Sunday’s Gospel relates (Lk 8:4-15)… It falls on many different types of ground.  The Path: there is no reception of the word, no faith: “Sin doesn’t matter at all… in fact there is no sin.”  or, alternately we go off the rails in the other direction and remain only ever miserable about our transgressions and those of others.  The Rocky Ground: I pay lip service to the virtue of penance… offer a superficial fly by recitation of my sins to get them out there but I leave and go back to the same old same old.  One indicator of this may be the “script” confession… literally the exact same word for word confession each time.  Another indicator of Rocky Ground is the frequent use of euphemisms for certain sins or antiquated language.  Hiding behind euphemisms and legalistic names suggests that there is still a fundamental fear of the sin in question, a lack of faith in God’s love for the penitent.  There’s a degree of sincerity, of reality here, but it withers quickly for lack of roots.  The Thorns: I do believe, I do confess thoroughly and with sincere purpose of amendment… I receive my penance and absolution fruitfully… then I turn on my TV or computer and read angry news, angry blogs, lustful websites and a host of other thorn bushes choke the good experience of penance.  And of course, every now and then the virtue of penance falls on good clear ground and we can bear fruit for real long lasting conversion.  

Brothers and sisters, as we proceed toward the holy season, let’s shine up that primordial Christian practice of boasting in our weakness that we might glorify Christ… let’s do it in our conversations, but let’s also refresh our practice of the virtue of penance …shake it up a bit… try a different examination of conscience… if things have become routine, change them up… Are there thorns around your practice of penance… identify them and radically pull them up this Lent… so that all of us may experience Christian peace through the virtue of penance. 


Two Expressions of the ONE Rite: From whence do we take our hope?

This weekend at St. Mary’s revealed, once again, that the two expressions of the one Roman Rite: the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form speak to us the same ONE Truth from Jesus Christ.  Below are transcribed homilies I gave… the first for the Feast of Bl. Karl of Austria (EF, yesterday)… and the second for the OF Sunday masses today.  Each one addresses one of my favorite issues: Hope… and it’s origins in hard times.

In Commemoration of Blessed Karl of Austria

In the beginning, the Apostles, the first Christians, drew their hope directly from an encounter with the Lord Jesus.  In the readings for today’s mass, the Lord enjoins us, “be prepared, for at what hour you think not the Son of Man will come.”  The Apostles believed that within their lifetime, Christ would return to inaugurate the end of time and the fullness of the Kingdom.  Based on that, and on their personal relationship with him in faith, they remained hopeful through martyrdom and other persecutions.   As time passed and it became obvious that the Second Coming wouldn’t be happening any time soon, the Church in her beauty and wisdom developed various means by which we could stay awake and girt with lamps burning waiting for the master’s return.  Literature, music, cuisine, ceremony… CULTURE developed as an instrument of hope linking us back, confirming us in the hope that comes from a personal encounter with Christ.  

The thing of it is… over time, the chaos of the world begins to creep back in to our consciousness.  We can become distant from Christ so that the cultural instruments of our hope begin to feel hollow, or even disappear.  The first time this happened, St. Benedict left Rome and established his order (We’re blessed to have some Benedictines with us today)… so that from Subiaco and Cassino bright centers of learning and peace and music and… well, culture might once more confirm our people in hope.  Their work, it is popularly said, “saved civilization.”  Eventually however, as perhaps it must, chaos began to creep in again, until the Lord called up Francis, Dominic and their itinerant friars (some of whom are with us today) to kindle again the fire of culture.  Time passed and again saints were needed.  St. Philip Neri renewed Rome (and, as it happens we have members of his Oratory with us today) using the tools of culture to renew hope among a cynical, despairing, and all too often depraved Roman establishment.  Over and over again… and we could name so many more great saints… God provides for a reanaissance of culture unto the confirmation of hope!  But it was never just the vowed religious who confirmed the brothers and sisters in hope.







In St. Peter’s Square one sees, at the heart of it all, the monumental basilica where Peter rests waiting for the Resurrection.  The first bishop at the heart of the Church… but reaching out embracing the world… or so it seems whenever the square is full… reaching out are the arms of the Church the colonnade of Bernini, which begin with two statues: Constantine, the first Christian Emperor and Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.  Representatives of the laity, who bonded to the clergy embrace and love the world, bringing hope to all.  

Blessed Karl of Austria was the last heir to that Tradition that began so long ago.  He saw his life as a ruler as that of the shepherd, meant to build a realm… and a culture… where people could be safe enough educated enough and faithful enough to touch hope.  He, the arms of the Church would take the lessons he’d learned at mass and put them to use serving his people in the world.  With the conclusion of World War I this would all be sorely tested.  Blessed Karl and his family lost everything: power, wealth, prestige, and not only their home but their homeland.  Exiled to a small Portuguese island, all the instruments of hope were taken away from them.  But what Karl learned and what we all must learn is that the instruments of hope are just that: instruments, means to an end.  Hope begins with a personal encounter with the living God… And this does not require wealth, power, music, literature… any of that.  Furthermore, all those instruments of hope are pointless if they don’t spring from a profound encounter with Christ.  We know that Karl learned this lesson because he passed it on to his children… whose descendants are also here today.  They are living breathing icons of the reality that hope begins and ends with Christ who rose from the dead… And no earthly circumstance can change that.

Today the Church, and society in general, finds itself challenged to hope.  All the cultural instruments that once buttressed our hope are gone.  The Empire has fallen and is not coming back.  Our teachings are not just challenged… much worse, they are ignored both without and often within the Church.  Our songs, literature, drama, art, ceremony… all are threatened either by active assault or the sad possibility of obsolescence.  And we… we are left to wonder, “how can we stay awake until the master’s return. 

If in our mind’s eye we return to St. Peter’s Square and enter the great portal of the Basilica, we find at our feet a seemingly nondescript disc of red stone.  Once, in Constantine’s Basilica, there were twelve such discs.  They were carved from red porphyry – stone of the Pharaohs, the Senate and the Emperors.  When Julius II began to build the present church, eleven of these precious discs were broken up, sent to monuments in various parts of the holy city.  This one remained… because on this stone, on Christmas Day in the year 800 the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne was crowned, signaling the return of culture, peace and hope to the West.  For five hundred years only popes and Catholic monarchs could traverse the porphyry disc… until St. John XXIII removed the barriers around it.  Good Pope John pointed out that the royal dignity of the popes and monarchs was not ultimately based on their coronations, their wealth or their power… but upon their baptism… the baptism ALL of us share, our very first encounter with Christ.  From that moment we all have royal dignity with the Lord… and our hope springs to life as we are joined to his death and resurrection.   This was the lesson Blessed Karl learned and taught us by doggedly holding on to a joyful hope until the end.  Through his prayers may we be likewise blessed, may we remain awake and vigilant until the Master’s return.

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
“It’s going to be OK”

Today’s OF gospel for mass (Mk 10:35-45) exposes for us an anxious moment.  It’s not just that Jesus is concerned for the Apostles about their infighting.  He’s preparing for crucifixion, worried that they just haven’t gotten it.  And when he’s gone, to whom will they look? 

It’s a question we’re all facing right now.  In an America that no longer agrees on what it means to be American, with our national identity shredded by identity politics, we feel uneasy, uncertain about our future.  Historically we would look to a unifying figure, the President, not necessarily to solve everything at once, but to say to us, “It’s going to be OK.”  But we don’t seem to have that at the moment.  Likewise in the Church.  There have always been problems in Church life, even grave scandal, even war.  The faithful rightly seek out a familiar voice to say, “It’s going to be OK.”  At the moment, it’s hard to find that voice.  The credibility of our bishops has been deeply scarred, and even Pope Francis by his comments, or at least by the media coverage of them, makes it hard to believe that, “It’s going to be OK.”  

A number of parishioners have come to me in recent days looking for me to tell them that and I found myself running on empty, hard pressed to tell them, “It’s going to be OK,” because it’s hard for me to see where our story goes from here… as a society, as a Church… and the voices to whom I would normally look are confused, silent, retired, discredited.  It was such a striking feeling that I actually went to see a friend who’s a therapist to discuss the matter.  He confirmed for me, (a) I’m not crazy (…big relief there…) and (b) this really is a hard moment.  I put that second point in there because often I find that I minimize challenges.  I assume that my life as a priest doesn’t have big epic-scale difficulties… those are reserved to people like corporate titans and high state officials… but it’s true.  This is a ground shaking moment for us as a Church.  

Then I looked at today’s second reading (Heb 4:14-16) and these words, 

“Brothers and sisters:
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,

let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.”

Heaven doesn’t depend on human beings, but on Jesus Christ… and HE is risen from the dead.  He remains sympathetic to our situation.  He reigns on high.  I don’t know what the future will look like for our society… for our Church.  Maybe, in all honesty I never did.  Maybe before we just had a greater statistical grasp of what the future would most likely be… but even that was never a guarantee.  The challenge of our Christianity is not to know the future, but to “hold fast to our confession” in the present.  To all our people: I don’t know how life turns out… but I do know, it’ll be OK… because Jesus is risen from the dead.

As Autumn Leaves Fall

Yesterday, walking through Congressional Cemetery, there were some splendid views of DC’s autumn laves; a bright light show of reds and golds prefacing their inevitable fall. As we come to the end of the growing year, and another liturgical year, the Church turns her attention toward the passing of all things.  Indeed, the month of November is dedicated solely to prayer for the dead.  Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them!

For me, thoughts of the “last things (death, judgment, heaven, hell and purgatory), bring some concern, but I’ve reached a point in my spiritual life where concern rapidly shifts to practical considerations: Am I being honest with myself about my spiritual life?  How does my training for heaven look?  What can I do to keep moving forward… not get stuck on the road to a positive judgment before the Lord?  Far from a tortured process of guilt (as many portray it), the Christian life is a beautiful series of opportunities.  As autumn leaves fall this year, they’re reminding me of some important spiritual tools that can help me get closer to heaven, and maybe help bring some others along for the ride.

Mortification is a classical concept in the Christian life, but one that gets short shrift in preaching these days.  Nonetheless, it’s been the key to happiness for every saint ever canonized.  “Blessed the people whose God is the Lord.” (Ps. 144:15)  The Psalms remind us that living out the First Commandment is the key to happiness.  But so much gets in the way, gums up the works…  “Sin speaks to the sinner in his heart.  He so flatters himself that he knows not his guilt.  In his mouth are all mischief and deceit.  All wisdom is gone.”  (Ps. 36).  Life happens, it makes it hard for us to see clearly good vs. evil.  Eventually, without ever purposely intending it, God is no longer first in our lives.  Our own yearnings, interpretations and decisions become the “gods of our idolatry.”

The saints, realizing this tidal drift away from the worship of the Lord in and through all things, bravely take up the process of mortification in order to restore true happiness and life!  A superb example of this process if St. Philip Neri.  Everyone knows that Philip was a saint marked first and foremost by JOY.  His smile, his humor and his love are widely remembered even today, 500 years after his earthly ministry.  What many casual observers don’t know is that Philip’s joy was grounded on a firm foundation of mortification.

Mortification means to deny oneself.  Classically, it’s broken down into three categories, mortification of the senses, understanding and will.

[For more on this, consider reading, Spiritual Combat by Fr. Lorenzo Scupoli a renaissance spiritual master.  The book is avaihalbe in print and in digital format.  Also, Fr. Francesco Agnelli’s Excellences of the Oratory]

Mortification of the senses denies unnecessary appetites focusing us on what is truly good for us.  The easiest example is: I see and smell chocolate cake, but I know that at the end of the day, what would really be better for me is a green salad.  I deny my urge for the chocolate cake and start mixing vegetables.  This can be applied to any of the senses.  Mortifying sight to avoid pornography, mortifying hearing to listen only to edifying music… etc. etc. Eventually, the cleansing process of mortifying our senses purifies the lens of the heart enabling us to see the world as it truly is… as God himself sees it.  And this we call “chastity/purity.”

Mortification of the understanding is an active acceptance of the reality that we really don’t know all of God’s plan, or why things have been allowed to happen.  Put another, perhaps more positive way, to mortify our understanding is to actively trust that however impossible it may seem, God can and will pull new life from every situation.  “Lord I don’t know why my friend got cancer, but I trust that somehow you will bring resurrection life from this experience of darkness.”  Mortification of the understanding admits and begins to love our own inner poverty by trusting the Lord.

Mortification of the will is where the rubber really hits the road, because this is where all our inner thoughts about appetites and understanding get translated into action, “Lord I submit my decision to a will other than mine.”  We may subject ourselves to God’s revealed truth/commands… We may subject ourselves to the will of another person, a spouse for example, or a poor neighbor.  In this we live out obedience.

Note how each of these forms of self-death (mortification) participates in one of the evangelical virtues: chastity, poverty, obedience.  They’re called “evangelical” precisely because living them demonstrates the power of the Gospel in our own hearts, where our God is now the Lord… and when other’s see this… and see us finding true happiness, these virtues become a mysteriously attractive quality drawing others to live the Christian life as well.

As autumn leaves fall, we may feel a little glum, but Jesus is a master at turning death into life.  Don’t flee the experience; embrace it!  You may be surprised at the freedom and new life you find on the other side, and consequently a greater happiness on earth in preparation for heaven. Preferisco Paradiso!

The silver linings of cliches

It’s a hard thing to realize that one conforms to a cliche or stereotype… ‘happened to me yesterday… actually it happens to me frequently, but yesterday was striking.  Sitting in my room,tapping away at my iPad, I was trying to multitask.  I was building a parish website while drawing background inspiration from DC’s local NPR station (WAMU)… and it hit me, “Geez am I a millennial!”  At first, like so many in my cohort, I brayed at the very notion of labeling… even self-labeling.  Then, I remembered that there is an upside to everything, even stereotypes, even cliches.

For better or worse, people tend to live “seventy years, eighty for those who are strong” as the Psalmist tells us.  And those years, in which we all find ourselves in some sort of social grouping, are nurtured by some positive goods.   I mean they have to be present or we’d die, right?  Even we espresso drinking, iPad tapping, label rejecting millennial shave some great things going for us; among them are the free exchanges and sharing we experience through podcasts and the like.  Consider listening to two particularly inspiring ones here both from the Moth Radio Hour:

The Story of Jonah Lehrer

The Epic of Ed Gavagan 

Both are great witnesses to the experience of loss and the tremendous possibilities for growth when we finally embrace the reality of what’s happened to us.  In other words, how to embrace the cross and come out resurrected on the other side.  Enjoy.

The artfulness of sledge hammers

Walking around the city today a very mundane sight caught my attention:  a building site on the 1700 block of M Street, NW… One building is in the process of being demolished between two others (see photo).


Do you notice what I noticed?  The adjacent building has hardly been scratched by the destruction!  It may not seem like much, but if you’ve ever worked with a sledge hammer you know it’s not exactly an instrument of finesse.

I marveled at the work crew’s achievement for a moment then walked on.  I’m sure the destruction will be matched eventually by equal feats of construction.  It’s all very impressive… but it pails in comparison to God’s achievements in nature.  Whether it’s me strolling the city or any of us being self-impressed, a dose of humility never hurts the avid humanist.  I was reminded as much when I sat down later with this verse from Bl. John Henry Newman:

Man goeth forth with reckless trust upon his wealth of mind, as if in self a thing of dust creative skill might find; he schemes and toils; stone wood and ore subject or weapon of his power.

By arch and spire, by tower-girt heights, he would his boast fulfill; by marble births, and mimic lights – yet lacks one secret still; where is the master hand shall give to breathe to move to speak to live?


The Beauty of Mary Magdalene

“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)

Donatello, Mary Magdalene
Donatello, Mary Magdalene

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  A few years ago, the National Gallery hosted an exhibition, “The Sacred Made Real,” displaying a series of sculptures carved to make people’s favorite paintings in 3-D.  It was the 17th century version of 3-D experience.  One such statue was of today’s saint, Mary Magdalene.  Mary is depicted nude, clothed only with her long hair.  It’s actually an iconic way of portraying the saint who tradition assumes is the “woman caught in adultery.” (Jn 8)  The imagery is shocking, one sees the Magdalene humbled, almost haggard in her nakedness… and yet… This is Mary at her best.  Brought before the Lord, she does not deny her sins, and in that nakedness, in that emptiness she is completely filled by Jesus: Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”  “No, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”  She does not clothe herself in defense, in pride.  Sitting in the nakedness of truth, she is lifted from the ground and clothed in new life by Chirst.  In a way, she undoes the dynamic of Eden.  No fig leaf for Mary; whatever shame it may cost in the eyes of men, she is loved by her God, and that becomes enough for her.  At the end of the Gospel (Jn 20:11-18) Mary is again completely empty.  Jesus has been taken from her.  Going to his tomb she weeps and once again he appears, Resurrected, to give her new life.  At this point Mary becomes the apostle to the Apostles, running to deliver the Good News to Peter and the others.

Lavinia Fontana, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Lavinia Fontana, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

Speaking of Peter, he demonstrates a marked contrast to Mary.  A few nights before (Jn. 18) Mary’s garden encounter with Jesus, afraid, vulnerable, weak, as Christ was being arrested, how does Peter respond?  He slices off the ear of the High Priest’s servant.  Clothed in earthly strength, Peter sets himself up for the biggest fall of all, the triple-denial of Christ later that night.  Like Mary, Peter’s restoration comes days later when in the triple confession of his love for Jesus, his humility gives Christ space to forgive him and restore him as the chief pastor of the Flock.  “Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21)

Sometimes penance comes involuntarily, as it did for Mary when she first met Jesus.  If in those moments we accept our penances we demonstrate wisdom.  Sometimes penance comes… or needs to come… voluntarily, chosen as an exercise to help us grown in wisdom and grace.  We can do this by fasting, praying, giving to the poor or some other form of appropriate self-denial, to – again – make a space our heart for Jesus.  Such is the beauty of Mary Magdalene and the beauty, really, of penance.  It makes a new space in our hearts for Christ and for new life.

“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)

It’s complicated

The Main Quad at W&L University
The Main Quad at W&L University

This week I took my eyes of faith on a bit of a field trip.  The Scouts from my parish were on a campout at the Boy Scout Reservation in Goshen, VA.  The trip was a great opportunity to get away from the city for an overnight, enjoy the fresh air and spend time with some of our wonderful parish youth.  While there, I stopped in nearby Lexington, VA, home to Washington and Lee University (W&L).  An experience at the school put me in mind of a conversation I had with a high school student.  She was having trouble understanding the concept of ‘loving the sinner, but hating the sin.’  Looking at W&L through eyes of faith gave a great example of my answer to that young lady: “It’s complicated.”  

Portrait of a Young G. Washington in the W&L Univ. Chapel

Washington and Lee was founded (as you might guess) by George Washington.  The first president knew that the US would need an educated populace if democracy was going to work, so he endowed a number of schools with canal stocks from the C&O Canal Company here in DC.  Our own GWU was founded with funds from that same bequest.  W&L was, at that time, an investment in the frontier and it paid off splendidly.

Portrait of Gen. R.E. Lee in W&L Univ. Chapel
Portrait of Gen. R.E. Lee in W&L Univ. Chapel

The Lee in W&L is a reference to the school’s most famous president, General Robert E. Lee who is buried there along with most of his famous family (Robert E. was descended from Richard Henry Lee of the Continental Congress, and war hero ‘Light-horse’ Harry Lee.  He married a direct descendant of George Washington, Mary Custis).

Before the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was an honored graduate of West Point, an accomplished military engineer and field officer.  His impressive family home at Arlington still overlooks the Potomac; it’s the mansion at the heart of Arlington Cemetery.  Lee was so respected that when war broke out in 1861, President Lincoln asked him to command the Army of the Potomac.  As a Virginian, descended from one of the first families of Virginia, Lee could not take up arms against his neighbors and family.  Throughout the conflict he led from the front, and commanded the Army of Northern Virginia winning some of the most stunning upset victories in American military history.  Were it not for the overwhelming economic/industrial might of the Union, it’s altogether possible that Lee’s martial genius would’ve won the war for the South.  After the war, Lee took over W&L, modernizing the school to play a key role in reconstruction.  There he died and there he lays in monumental splendor in the school’s chapel.

Sepulcher Monument of Gen. R.E. Lee
Sepulcher Monument of Gen. R.E. Lee

If my description of Lee seems to glow, that’s intentional.  He was a man worthy of respect on account of his integrity.  He believed that all men are honor-bound to do their duty according to their convictions.  For Lee, those convictions orbited certain key values: family, duty, states’ rights, fairness and courtesy.  But what of the southern cause?  Try as one may, the Confederacy’s arguments for states’ rights sprang from the abhorrent institution of slavery at the basis of their economy.  How could such an honorable man fight for such an imperfect, even evil, cause?


As I told my high school student, “It’s complicated.”  The war wasn’t as black-and-white as… well… black and white… on either side.  Lincoln himself, the great emancipator, held off emancipation waiting for a military victory that would signal a turn in the tide of the war.  Did that make the the president an accomplice?  Was emancipation a conviction or a political tool?  It’s complicated… because people are complicated.  Parsing out good and evil in human actions is sometimes harder than pulling oil from water.  And yet… where we see the good we are invited to recognize and honor it, that it may give us hope and keep civil conversation going until such time as free human souls freely choose to purge evil from themselves with the help of God.  Faced with this complex and often painful reality we need to pray for humility… a humility that truly allows us to hate sins while loving sinners until one day, all of us receive judgment from the one who truly judges: God himself.

Exercising our independence from cultural grief

Marc Chagall - Abraham Mourning the Death of Sarah
Marc Chagall – Abraham Mourning the Death of Sarah
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I remember you
From the land of the Jordan and Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.  (Ps. 42:7)

This excerpt comes from today’s Morning Prayer.  At first glance, it might seem an odd verse to consider on Independence Day, but as I look with eyes of faith over [what seems to be] our national consciousness Psalm 42:7 might be more useful than you’d think.

A lot of people feel like the American experience is, at the moment, a big hole in the ground.  We hear about divisions everywhere: 50/50 elections and referenda, 4/4 Supreme Court Decisions, Partisan rhetoric (polemics, really)… racial divides, divides over gender identity issues… Everywhere there is talk of division.  Talking heads speak about the large number of Americans who believe the country is headed in the “wrong direction;” likewise the sense that for the first time, the next generation will not live as well as the last.  Neither a pollster nor a statistician, I won’t endorse any of these views in their specifics, but I will say – anecdotally – I’ve heard enough people talking like this (family, friends, parishioners) to conclude that people aren’t necessarily feeling great about America on Independence Day.  Many seem to be staring into a great big hole of sadness.  Indeed, the most commonly diagnosed clinical psychological conditions in the US are depression and anxiety.  What’s a country to do?


Our souls are downcast within us.

A brief lesson in metaphysics: God created all things and made them good.  Goodness has substantial nature.  Think of goodness as a pile or a mountain.  What about evil?  Evil has no substance of its own.  God did not create it.  So what is evil?  It’s a “privation,” a lack of goodness.  Think of evil as a hole in the ground where a mountain ought to be.  Because evil has no substance of its own, it only has the power we substantial beings give it.

History would seem to prove that as weak concupiscent human beings we have a tendency to become fascinated, even obsessed, with the hole in the ground.  From the beginning, Adam and Eve were distracted from all the good God had created around them.  They became fixated on their perceived lack.  The devil plays on this in Genesis: “God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” (Gn. 3:5)

Marc Chagall - Expulsion from Paradise
Marc Chagall – Expulsion from Paradise

In the beginning, focusing on privation, focusing on lack brought about our fall.  Today, it seems to be responsible, at the very least, for a national bad mood.

Both sides in the current Western debate have fallen for the same trap.  The left (exemplified in T.S. Eliot’s Christianity and Culture) has spent three centuries running from the pain for Europe’s 17th century religious wars. Call it secular politics, call it rejection of patriarchal structures, call is sexual revolution it all goes back to the same flight from pain that began at the Peace of Westphalia.  But running from something painful is not the same as positively building up something better.  The current response of the right is eloquently exemplified in David Brooks’ recent column, Revolt of the Masses (June 28, 2016 – The New York Times): it’s not so much economic downturns that have angered the right, it is the death of the culture that sustained their souls.  Both left and right have become fixated on a metaphysical hole in the ground… both are grieving for a lack of life-giving culture.  What is the West to do?

…therefore I remember you
From the land of the Jordan and Hermon,
from Mount Mizar

It’s time to get up off the mat… not with a facile optimism but with a substantial hope!  God is author of all good.  He’s given us so much… not only material resources, but each other… souls capable of loving each other and building each other up for the good.  More than this, he’s given us his very self so that we might be re-created in Christ over and over again.  G.K. Chesterton put it this way, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried”  Pope Francis has counseled “encounter” over and over again… an encounter where we exercise our God-given potential to make a decision to build up our neighbors in love.  The only thing stopping us from building up that mountain of good with our God is our own fascination with our grief.  We could remain fascinated… but what good has that done us?

Domenico Veneziano - St. John in the Desert - Nat. Gallery of Art
Domenico Veneziano – St. John in the Desert – Nat. Gallery of Art

Looking on this 4th of July with eyes of faith, perhaps we might exercise our independence from grief our independence from sadness by striving to build up something positive and new… a more perfect union of neighbors celebrating the goods they freely share.

Bronze of Liberty outside the Kennedy Center
Bronze of Liberty outside the Kennedy Center

Where do I fit in the “City On the Hill”

The Cathedral of St. Matthew in the heart of DC
The Cathedral of St. Matthew in the heart of DC

People beginning to look on our city with eyes of faith face a challenge: where do I fit in to this picture.  It’s not just a matter of taste-based preferences, “I’m a vegetarian.  You eat meat.”  “I like jazz others prefer rock.”  Reading the world through eyes of faith can sometimes lead to marginalization, even outright rejection.  One of our teens shared this on retreat.  He had been touched by a parish youth group experience and began to pray at different points in the day… including grace before lunch at school; a act that one the strange looks and even jeers of his classmates.    It’s not just in public schools either.  Students at Catholic schools will often face an uphill climb to speak openly among more secular peers about how they see the world.  As we approach Independence Day, such situations beg the question, “In the American City on a Hill where does a person fit who sees with eyes of faith?”

St. Joan of Arc in Meridian Hill Park - She rejoiced to see her country free, but even more to serve Christ
St. Joan of Arc in Meridian Hill Park – She rejoiced to see her country free, but even more to serve Christ

Turning to the Sunday readings, we hear “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her.” God’s people had been released from exile in Babylon, sent home to rebuild the holy city and live in renewed freedom and right relationship with God.  It was a time of excitement and hope.  It was the same hope-filled anticipation that the first european settlers of this land experienced when they heard the cry, “LAND!”  Whether it was the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the party of Lord Baltimore arriving at St. Clement’s Island just down river from DC, or the first settlers of Jamestown… this land promised a chance to live in right relationship with God by living in right relationship with each other.  Thus did John Winthrop (Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630) appropriate Biblical language to define this new land as the city on the hill.  President Kennedy would later recall that language (1961):

I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required”

As Catholics the new Jerusalem is not primarily an earthly conception, but a vision of the heaven that awaits us.  For us the gates of the new Jerusalem are opened by the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross and perpetuated through our own sacrifices offered in union with his here in the mass.  We are called to that sacrifice to get ourselves to heaven… to free souls waiting in purgatory to enter heaven… and to let our neighbors on earth taste of the goodness of heaven in the hopes that they too may join their efforts to Christ’s and find heaven’s fulfillment after death.  “I boast only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ… for neither does circumcision matter nor does uncircumcision by only new creation.” (cf. Gal. 6:14-18)  Our focus is heaven.

I was excited to see that focus clearly at work in the high school students with whom I spent this last week.  They discerned how Jesus has touched their lives… and how they can spread each of their stories through different evangelization tools.  They learned about different opportunities to serve their neighbor… they learned how to put together and give a witness talk… and, particularly exciting: they learned to transfer that whole experience to social media using the net to spread the joy of being on their way to the new Jerusalem.

The Catholic vision of the new Jerusalem, and the historic American vision of the city on the hill are complimentary.  Under Gospel inspiration we desire to serve the common good of our nation – our neighbors – peacefully, prayerfully, through work and civil discourse.  The students on retreat modeled this desire so beautifully for me.  Under Christ’s inspiration we are invited to serve all even when our hard work is rejected by those same neighbors… even if – as was the case for Jesus – those same neighbors nail us to the cross.  This too, our high school students have experienced.  They persevere joining Christ on the cross… trying to give a taste of the new Jerusalem on earth… but aiming ultimately to reach it in heaven.  It reminds me of something Cardinal Ratzinger said in his homily for the opening of the conclave that would eventually elect him Pope:

“Our ministry is a gift of Christ to humankind, to build up his body – the new world. We live out our ministry in this way, as a gift of Christ to humanity!”

I would like to be like these students each day of my own life.

As we offer up our sacrifices this Independence Day Weekend, the words of President Lincoln beautifully capture our mission as Catholic citizens of these United States:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

God save our blessed Republic.  Amen.

St. Philip’s care for the salvation of souls

On this eighth day of our novena to St. Philip we meditate on his care for the salvation of souls.

The concept of care for the salvation of souls is something largely muted in the contemporary Church.  What does it mean to care for the salvation of souls?  The short version is this: Taking their cue from God himself, Catholics desire all people to one day be in heaven.  To that end, we exhort, teach, guide, assist others in living lives worthy of heaven.  BUT… as we all know people have free will and don’t always listen, even to the best of advice.  This is where  care for the salvation of souls really kicks in.  A person can offer sacrifice to God praying that the Lord break through to hearts that we have a hard time reaching on earth.  Sacrifice can also be offered to speed the journey of those in purgatory who are ‘working off’ their venial sins on the way to heaven.

Care for the salvation of souls springs from the reality that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to redeem us (cf. Jn 3:16).  Essentially, Christians are invited to imitate Christ in his own care for the salvation of souls, joining him on the Cross in the work of redemption.  Why would such a beautiful teaching be muted in today’s ordinary parish experience?  Well, the flip side of saving souls is that sometimes souls aren’t saved… a reality most people don’t like even to consider.  The anxiety is understandable, but doesn’t change the reality that hell exists and on can go there as a result of one’s earthly (in)actions.  A post-modern secular world that doesn’t believe in hell or the devil, has no reason to take up the salvation of souls as an issue… but St. Philip Neri certainly did!

Philip loved people… and he wanted all to experience the love of God that he himself had come to know.  Every thought of his was bent toward the love of God and salvation of souls.  His prayers, self-denials, humiliations, hardships… everything was ordered to the saving of souls.  He had a special place in his heart for young people and the maintenance of their purity.  Often he would invite them off the streets to play in what – today – we would call a safe environment.  When they made noise, disturbing the local religious houses/observances, Philip was chided by his neighbors.  His response says it all, “So long as they do not sin, they can chop wood on my back for all I care.”

Care for the salvation of souls is certainly not unique to St. Philip; all the saints had this same care.  I think particularly of St. John Vianney and St. Therese of Lisieux.  As we rely on their earthly example, now we can rely on their heavenly intercession to bring our souls back from the brink… and in this we rejoice.  Consider Newman’s prayer for today’s novena reflection:

“Philip, holy Patron, who was so careful for the souls of thy brethren, and especially, for thy own people, when on earth, slap not thy care of them now, when thou art in heaven.  Be with us who are thy children and thy clients; and with thy greater power with God, and with thy more intimate insight into our needs and our dangers, guide us along the path which leads to God.  Be to us a good father; make our priests beyond reproach or scandal; make our children obedient, our youth prudent and chaste, our heads of families wise and gentle, our old people cheerful and fervent, and build us up, by thy powerful intercession, in faith, hope, charity and all virtues.  Amen.”