22 June 2015

Gambling on mercy

NB. A catechetical homily from 2012. . .

12th Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Let's get to the nitty-gritty of Jesus' admonition against being judgmental by making an essential distinction: there is a difference btw “judging an act to be immoral” and “judging to person to be immoral.” For example, the Church has always believed that the direct killing of innocent life is an intrinsically morally evil act; therefore, regardless of intent or circumstance, abortion may never be called good. Now, let's say a Catholic female friend of yours procures an abortion and tells you about it. You respond, “Abortion is a mortal sin.” She yells at you, “Get the splinters out of your own eye before you judge me!” How do you answer her? You can take the easy way out and back off immediately, allowing her judgment of you to shut you up. Or, if you're feeling the Spirit's courage, you might say, “I'm not judging you. I'm judging the act of procuring an abortion.” If you want to violate the Lord's admonition not to judge, you could respond, “You are guilty of murder and need to go to confession immediately!” Just know: “. . .as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” 

Now that we've made the distinction between judging an act and judging a person, let's look carefully at what Jesus teaches about making judgments. First, as Christians, are we forbidden from judging acts? No, we're not. In fact, we are often required to judge the morality of an act before we do it. Is it moral for me to deceive this person under these circumstances? The cashier gave me too much change: is it moral for me to keep it? Is smacking this person up side the head moral? I'm late for work: may I speed? We are free to deliberate on the morality of acts b/c we are obligated as Christians to behave morally. Are we forbidden from judging persons? No, we're not. But there's a catch. A big catch. Jesus says to remove the splinter from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from mine. If your eye is free of splinters, then start removing splinters from mine! Here's the catch: you will be judged as you judge, and the measure you use to measure me will be used to measure you. So, make sure that the standard you use to judge me is one that you yourself can live up to. Hypocrisy is the art of applying one standard to yourself and a completely different standard to others. And we all know what Jesus thinks of hypocrites! 

Why do we so consistently ignore or twist Jesus' teaching on hypocrisy? He asks, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” Well, it's certainly easier for me to worry about your faults than my own. If I pay too much attention to my sins, I might actually have to think about confessing them, and that's no fun. It's also easier for me to accuse you falsely of being judgmental if I don't want to repent of my favorite sin. Judge not lest ye be judged! That's part of the teaching. . .the part that supposedly lets me off the hook for sinning when you bring the sin to my attention. You might have several yards of lumber in your eye when you point out the toothpick in mine. The fact that you're a sinner too doesn't mean I'm a saint. It just means that we are both sinners. So, what's a good Christian to do when a friend is sinning? Take a careful inventory of your own moral life. Pay very, very careful attention to your motivations for wanting to point out a friend's sin. And then decide if you are willing to be judged by the standard you think proper for your friend. No one is perfect. But no one is purely evil either. Gamble on mercy—that's the measure Christ uses, whether we deserve it or not.

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14 June 2015

Faith needs courage

11th Sunday OT (2015)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Are you courageous? Do you possess the strength of heart necessary to speak the truth, to walk by faith, and to live in hope; to do always and in every circumstance the right thing? Paul writes to the Corinthians, “We are always courageous, brothers and sisters, although. . .we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yet we are courageous. . .” Do we walk by faith? Live in hope? Do we aspire to please the Lord? Why should we aspire to please the Lord? “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense,” correction, and repair. Christ will sit in judgment of our actions, whether good or evil, and so it is Christ we must work to please. But b/c “we are away from the Lord” and caught in the world of men, the temptation to work for man's approval is nearly overwhelming. And so, we desperately need courage: the strength of heart necessary to speak the truth, to walk by faith, and to live in hope; the righteous spirit required to turn the temptation of disastrous compromise and to seed the world with the Good News so that the Lord's harvest may yield abundant and excellent fruit. 

Paul says that we are always courageous, that our hearts are always strong in the faith. But we might rightly suspect that he's flattering us, so that we will hear and obey his call to faithfulness. You and I both know that fighting the temptation to please the world with the weapons of Christian courage is a day-to-day battle. Some days we barely hold our own. Once and a while, we eek out a small win. One, maybe two days in a lifetime, we are truly pressed against a wall, and through sheer, muscular courage face down the temptation and declare victory. But most days, most weeks and years, the fight seems hardly worth the blood and sweat of a win. Hardly worth the time it would take to muster a defense. C'mon, it's just a tiny compromise in principle to keep the peace. We will gain so much in exchange for something so small. How do I know that this is the right thing to do? We all have different ideas of what's right. I don't want to lose my job, my friends; anger my neighbors, my spouse, my kids. Everyone else thinks this is OK; who am I to say otherwise? I feel like this is right, so it must be right. We have the right to do this, so doing it must be right, right? These are the small, daily challenges to your courage that probe your heart, poking and prodding for weaknesses so that the grand challenge to come might see you defeated. The smallest seed—of cowardice, of bravery—can produce abundant fruit, whether for good or for evil.

Jesus grasps for a parable, an image that will help him to explain the Kingdom of God. He settles on the image of a tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous tree. In his parable, the Kingdom of God is “the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.” This enormous tree, deeply rooted and supporting many large branches, springs up from a single, flyspeck of a seed. All those leaves, all those branches, the weight of its trunk, the depth of its roots, its resting shade, all of it comes out of the smallest of seeds. The smallest act of faith, the tiniest word of hope, no matter how small, how apparently insignificant the seed, properly sown and nurtured can spring up and grow into a heart courageous enough to withstand the most savage temptations wrought by the world of men. Jesus says that a farmer sows his seed-wheat and overnight his harvest is ripe, ready for reaping. When we sow the seeds of faith, hope, and love, the Kingdom of God sprouts in our hearts—growing and growing and growing—just waiting for the final reaping, waiting for the Christ to come so that we might go before his judgment seat and have him weigh our harvest, our words and deeds, whether good or evil. But before the harvest, before our judgment, we are tested; probed, prodded, and poked, in small ways and large, so that our courage might be measured. 

Writing to the Church in Thibaris in northeast Africa, in the first century, St. Cyprian of Carthage warns the faithful there: “. . .the day of affliction has begun to hang over our heads. . .so we must all stand prepared for the battle.” Like most of his contemporaries, Cyprian believed that the Anti-Christ roamed the world in his day and that the Last Days were only weeks or months away; thus, he warns his brothers and sisters in Christ that their martyrdom for the faith was imminent. So, he exhorts them, “. . .a fiercer fight is now threatening, for which the soldiers of Christ ought to prepare themselves with uncorrupted faith and robust courage. . .” Our own battles threaten, so we too are rightly exhorted to prepare ourselves with an uncorrupted faith and a robust courage! It is unlikely that our battles will end in violence and bloodshed, but this actually makes the fight more dangerous for us. Threatened with a gun or a knife, we would fight with all our physical strength and all our determination to survive and win. But what if the faith is threatened by a piece of legislation, an executive order, a court decision, or the possibility of being ostracized for following Christ? What are our weapons then? 

Cyprian tells the Christians in Thibaris, “Let us be armed, beloved brethren, with our whole strength, and let us be prepared for the struggle with an uncorrupted mind, with a sound faith, with a devoted courage.” When we are tempted to please the world of men, to compromise in the smallest way against the faith, we are to arm ourselves with all the strength given to the children of God: a mind uncorrupted by inordinate desires, base passions, and irrational prejudices; a sound faith solidly rooted in the apostolic tradition, guided by the Church's authentic teachers, and lived with wholehearted charity; and a devoted courage, a heart strengthened by a true love for God and an eagerness to see God loved by all. When threatened, are we courageous? Do we reach up to Christ and down into our spirit for the strength of heart necessary to speak the truth, walk by faith, and live in hope; to speak, walk, and live righteously with our God; to do always and in every circumstance the right thing? Even when the right thing will take us to court, to jail, to the unemployment line, the hospital, away from family and friends? 

Every act of faith, every word of hope sows a tiny seed, a minuscule germ of love from which the mighty tree of God's kingdom can take root and grow. But the sower of these seeds must be courageous, stout-hearted, and bravely immune to any temptation to worry about the approval and applause of the world of men. It is Christ himself who will sit in judgment of our words and deeds, whether good or evil; it is Christ himself who will weigh our hearts, measure our trust, and sift from us the wheat from the chafe. If you are courageous, go out and sow the seeds that will bring about the Kingdom. If you live with a spirit of cowardice, pray for strength and then go be strong anyway. The battle against corruption in our faith is has always been with us, is with us now, and will be with us until judgment day dawns. Arm yourselves with the best weapons Christ and his Church have to offer, and prepare to repel—with faith, reason, and love—the darker spirits of this corrupting age.

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03 June 2015

Thanks/Medical Update

My Mendicant Thanks to Muriel S. for visiting the Wish List and sending me some canvases!

My walls were starting to get nervous. . .

Went to the doc today for an ultrasound on my left leg. . .no blood clots!

Thanks for your kind prayers. . .please keep them up as the summer progresses and I embark on Yet Another Weight Loss Effort. (sigh)

God bless, Fr. Philip Neri, OP

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01 June 2015

Suffer to see the Holy Trinity

NB. This homily is from 2012. I preached it last night at OLR in a different version but forgot to bring my recorder.  

Most Holy Trinity
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

The Most Holy Trinity is a Mystery. . .Catholics of a certain age will recall hearing the term “mystery” used to describe many of our essential beliefs. If you pray the rosary, you will hear the word “mystery” used to describe the events of Jesus' life—sorrowful, joyous, glorious, and luminous. What does the word “mystery” mean? Mystery conveys the idea that what is usually hidden from us has been revealed; that which is usually unreachable by us is put within our grasp; and that which is usually unknowable to us is made knowable. There are two essential elements in the Christian idea of mystery: 1). the truth of the mystery is always revealed to us, never found by us; and 2). the fullest understanding of the mystery comes only when we stand before the Lord face-to-face. Of all the mysteries that define our relationship with God, the Holy Trinity serves as the central mystery. By what means do we unlock this mystery? How do we participate in the life of the Holy Trinity? 

Without hesitation, the Church proclaims the Holy Trinity to be a mystery. Incomprehensible, baffling, and curious. And even as she declares the ineffable nature of the Trinity, the Church exhausts every resource—philosophical, theological, and magisterial—to unlock the puzzle of the Divine Persons and to describe the mystery of the Godhead as Three-in-One. One God, three Persons. Three distinct Persons with one divine nature, one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What is knowable and known about the Holy Trinity is knowable and known as a gift, freely revealed by God Himself. Whether we come to know what we know by reason or faith, we know it because God wills that it be known and to the degree that He wills us to know it. Both reason and faith are gifts. Both lead to His truth. Both operate by His grace. And because we are limited creatures and receive His gifts imperfectly, both reason and faith are misshapen keys that cannot fit the lock that keeps the fullness of His mystery away from us. For us to know His mystery perfectly we must be perfected in the mystery; essentially, we must become the mystery in order to see Him face-to-face. This perfection requires more than curiosity, more than intellectual prowess, and more than pious determination. It requires us to suffer. 

Paul writes to Christ’s Church in Rome, no doubt telling them what all Christians at the time already knew by long experience. He writes that if we will become the children of God, co-heirs of His kingdom with Christ, “we [must] suffer with [Christ] so that we may also be glorified with him.” To look forward to glory with Christ in heaven, we must look no further than how we suffer with Christ right now. If we foolishly believe that heavenly glory comes without earthly suffering, we foolishly believe that we can go to the Father without Christ. We go to the Father with Christ by becoming Christ and to become Christ we must follow him along his suffering way. We bear a cross. We walk the way of sorrow. We are crucified in the flesh. And we cry out in despair even as we are given up for the love of our friends. If we want to know mystery, we must become mystery. When we stand away from Christ’s suffering, avoiding at any cost the troubles that come with dying and rising again with him, we return his gift unopened; and not only do we remain in ignorance of the mystery, we tempt spending our life eternal apart from his glory. 

But why believe the promise of eternal life in the first place? Why trust a promise made by an unseen god? Why should we come to understand our pain, our loss, and our mourning as necessary parts of God’s plan to make us His heirs? Moses challenges God’s people, saying: “Ask now of the days of old, […] Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?” Even as they suffer in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, God speaks in fire and smoke to His people, showing them the way to their salvation. Even as they suffer, God is with them. Even as they suffer, God chooses them to be His people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood. As a nation, they are His prophets and kings and for this they suffer. He takes them out of slavery and into the desert on a promise, on a covenant-oath never to abandon them, never to forsake them to final godlessness. In response to this gift, Moses acclaims, “This is why you must now know, and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other.” If this piece of the puzzle, this truth of the mystery is fixed in our hearts, a truth we now know, why do we shrink from suffering? 

Look at the disciples. Jesus orders them to a high mountain in Galilee. Matthew reports in his gospel that “when they all saw [Christ], they worshiped, but they doubted.” What did they doubt? Do they doubt the veracity of his teachings? Do they doubt their own strength? Their piety, their determination, their intellectual prowess? No! They doubt the true nature of the one who stands before them, freely offering them the Kingdom of his Father. Knowing the reason for their doubtful hearts, Jesus says, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” With all the power of heaven and earth, Jesus fulfills the covenant as his Father promised He would. With all the power of heaven and earth, Jesus reveals the Father and His Son and promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. With the power of heaven and earth, Jesus sends his disciples out as apostles to baptize, to teach and preach, and to make disciples of the whole world. And these newly anointed apostles are to do all this in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in the name of the Triune Mystery; and as they preach and teach and baptize, they become more and more fully sons of God. They doubt no longer. 

When their Lord is arrested and convicted, scourged, crucified, and raised from the dead, the apostles testify their way to heaven: to glory through suffering, to the fullness of the mystery through earthly trial and persecution. And so they walked behind him with their crosses all the way to heaven. Each one teaches, preaches, makes disciples, and spends his life doing what Christ did so to become like Christ for those who would follow after them. We are those who follow after. And whether we suffer in small ways or grand, in jail or exile, at home or far away, so long as we do all things for the greater glory of God, Christ says to us, “[…]behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Therefore, our suffering can never be useless misery; it brings us nearer to the Triune Mystery we were made to adore, that we were made to become according to His will for us. 

Words and images, concepts and logic, ancient wisdoms and new, none approach the unapproachable light that blinds the holiest human eye. The glory of God at once seduces and repels, draws in and pushes out. And whether you are reeled in or run away reeling hangs on the clearest of Christian truths, one key truth: have you suffered as Christ suffered—for the love of your friends in name of the One Who made you? This key fits any lock, opens every door, lifts any lid. This key, the Key of David, the only Son of God, opens the treasure house of the Father’s Kingdom and makes us heirs to the fortunes of heaven. The Good News of salvation is that there is no chain so tight, no cell so strong, no sin so enslaving that the key of the cross cannot free us. Yes, we must suffer to follow Christ, to grow in mystery, to join him in his glory. But this no burden. It is a blessing. “[We] did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but [we] received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, "Abba, Father!’”

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26 May 2015

You love me! You really love me!

HancAquam has been awarded the 1st annual New Evangelization Award for Excellence in Catholic Blogging by Big C Catholic blog. 

My thanks to Big C Catholic for selecting HancAquam for this award. 

HA has been rolling since 2005.

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Human joy is divine love in action

Happy Feast Day! To celebrate St. Philip Neri, I thought I'd repost my NDS talks from last month. I've reformatted them a bit so that they are easier to read. 
St. Philip Neri: the Virtue of Joy

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA
19 April 2015

“Men are generally the carpenters of their own crosses.” – St Philip Neri

Part I
It is early February in the year 1590. Philip Neri – Pippo Buono – is 75 years old and long a saintly figure in the streets and courts of Rome. Confessor and confidant to cardinals, statesmen, thugs, and fishwives, Pippo stands with the entire Oratory community of the Chiesa Nouva and eleven cardinals, waiting for the solemn procession to arrive. Relics of the ancient martyrs, Papias and Maurus, had been discovered in the titular church of Agostino Cardinal Cusano earlier in the year. Cardinal Cusano, a penitent under Pippo's spiritual care, wanted to bestow on his confessor and friend a singular honor. He had ordered the newly discovered relics to be transferred to Pippo's home, the Chiesa Nuova. When the procession arrives, the Papal Swiss Guard comes to attention and forms an aisle for the relics into the church. As the relics pass by Pippo, a familiar buzzing begins in his heart. An old friend, Joy, rises in his soul and Pippo does what he always does when the nearness of holiness threatens him with ecstasy. He does something foolish. Where most of us would drop to our knees in prayer, or shout out praise and thanksgiving to God, Pippo does the unexpected. He walks up to one of the stoically serious Swiss Guards and begins pulling on his beard!1 For St. Philip Neri, for Pippo Buono, the joy that love demands of us is best expressed in humble acts of apparent foolishness.

And about his apparent foolishness there is much to say. Reading Pippo's biographies is like reading a catalog of schoolboy pranks. Attending vespers at a fashionable parish, he would dress like a beggar and loudly mispronounce the Latin. He would send penitents on public errands with their clothes turned inside-out. He would demand that the young dandies who came to him for advice shave half their beards. He was once seen skipping like a child inside the church of St Peter in Chains. And another time, during Mass at the Chiesa Nuova, he had a barber cut his hair!2 Many thought he was simply an addle-minded old man. Others thought he was a saint entirely lost to ecstasy. Pippo saw himself as a sinner tempted by pride to embrace the power and glory that his closeness to God afforded him, a temptation that – on a much larger scale – had corrupted Rome and exiled godly humility. Pippo's antics were not attention-seeking, or foolishness for the sake of foolishness. His ridiculous behavior kept his joy grounded in humility. He feared the lightness of his heart at the merest thought of God would lift him away – literally, allow him to fly – and he feared that his people would come to believe that only those so lifted in flight could be said to be holy. His life, his work, his death all point us toward the truth of joy: Joy is love in action. Human joy, our joy, is divine love, God's love for us, in action.

With Pippo's living-admonition to remain firmly grounded in humility ringing in our ears, we can move – cautiously move – toward a less animated exploration of the virtue of joy and how joy must enliven a priest's ministry. I say “cautiously move” because joy is an effect of love and we do ourselves only a little good by simply pinning joy to a specimen board, splaying open its belly, and dissecting its parts. Examination is good and necessary, but it is also woefully insufficient. Joy is best known in being joyful. Not by knowing the names and functions of all its parts. That said, we turn to the Great Dissector himself, Thomas Aquinas, for the better parts of understanding where we are intellectually with joy.

According to Thomas, strictly speaking, joy is not a virtue.3 It is not an operative habit, nor does it incline us to perform any specified acts. However, the virtues (theological, moral, intellectual) do tend to produce “several ordinate and homogeneous acts,” or effects. In the case of the virtue of charity, joy is one such ordinate and homogeneous act, making joy an effect of charity. Thomas writes, “Hence [charity] inclines us to love and desire the beloved good, and to rejoice in it. But in as much as love is the first of these acts, that virtue takes its name, not from joy, nor from desire, but from love, and is called charity. Hence joy is not a virtue distinct from charity, but an act, or effect, of charity. . .” 
How are these scholastic distinctions even remotely pertinent to our exploration of Pippo's apparent foolishness? Philip Neri studied philosophy at the Sapienza in Rome and theology with the Augustinians just short of a decade after Emperor Charles V paid mercenaries to sack the city in 1527. In his biography of Pippo, Paul Turk, notes, “. . .it is well testified that he read St. Thomas Aquinas throughout his life and that later on he was capable of discussing intricate problems with learned men of his day.”4 Though Pippo always downplayed his intellectual prowess and education, the influence of Thomas in Pippo's day was pervasive and unavoidable. Pippo often sent young men to the Dominicans and maintained friendships with the friars at San Marco in Florence. The fiery friar-preacher, Savonarola, was a life-long inspiration for Pippo. So, it is a safe assumption that the fine scholastic distinctions found the Angelic Doctor's work made their way into the saint's humble heart and mind, and were given an exaggerated expression in his apparent foolishness. Pippo fully understood that his antics were both a means to humility and a way to be loving. In other words, he wasn't just acting crazy to be seen acting crazy. When the fire of joy overflowed, Pippo – always mindful of the temptation of vanity – let loose in the streets of Rome a circus of God's love and drew to Him Who Is Love crowds of sinners to be welcomed and washed clean. For sinners, foolishness was Pippo's hook. For himself, it was a penance.

If we take Pippo's life as a dramatic reading of Thomas' notion of joy, we can better see not only why Pippo lived as he did, but also how we have so misunderstood joy. Assuming that Thomas is correct concerning joy – and, of course, he is! – then we must admit that we've been “doing joy” wrong for quite some time. Like most of our traditional philosophical and theological vocabulary and grammar, joy has been stripped of its transcendental referent – de-transcendentalized, if you will. The modernizing project of the so-called “Enlightenment” demanded that our language submit itself to the grubby paws of naturalized reason and bow to the harsh judgments of empirical science. Any attempt to reach above human reason and grasp at the transcendent was ruled out of order. Rather than reinvent an entirely new language for the modern project, our Betters took the languages they had on hand – traditional philosophy and theology – and began re-writing the dictionaries to scour them clean of the natty influences of silly supernatural superstitions. The virtues were re-paganized into merely human attributes, laudable behaviors with nothing above them to strive toward and nothing beneath them for support. If the virtues suffered such a barbaric treatment, then their “ordinate and homogeneous acts” and effects suffered as well. Desire and joy as effects of charity – de-transcendentalized – became little more than human longing and momentary delight. Nothing above, nothing below. Nothing to move toward, nothing to stand on. 

The current best definition of joy? “A feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” A feeling. Not an act of love or an effect of charity. But a feeling. A feeling of what? Pleasure and happiness. How defined? No idea. With nothing as a referent, pleasure and happiness are defined by nothing more than the individual expressing joy. Do the ISIS terrorists who are beheading Christians in Iraq feel joy? Sure, why not? If it makes them happy – and they certainly look happy – why not call it joy? Would Thomas and Pippo call it joy? Is beheading another human being in order to instill terror in others a loving act? Hardly. Yet we can rightly describe these terrorists – using our modern dictionaries – as joyful.

My purpose in rehearsing the fall of our traditional language is to bring into focus the depths to which we have fallen in allowing our words to become bastardized by nominalism. That is, by not challenging the underlying assumptions of the modern world's use of language, we immediately surrender the field to nihilism and chaos. When we use words in the way that our Betters demand we use them, we sign away our natural freedom to speak as Christians. Pippo may not have understood the problem of nominalism or even knew that the problem existed; however, he understood all too well the temptations inherent in allowing words and concepts to remain merely marks on a page. Over and over again in his sayings, his letters, his strange antics in the streets of Rome, Pippo acted out the fires of joy. Not simply speaking about joy but acting joyfully; loving sinners; acting as a flesh and bone avatar of joyful repentance. Turk notes that Pippo never gave a penance that he himself failed to complete. He was as demanding of himself as he was of his penitents. And in this way, Pippo embodied the joy that our Lord came to us to complete.

If St. Philip Neri embodies genuine Christian joy, then what does the opposite of Christian joy look like? Thomas tells us that desire and joy are the “ordinate and homogeneous acts” or effects of the virtue of charity. Sorrow is opposed to joy, and sorrow is an effect of the vice sloth. So, what is sloth? Thomas, referring to St John Damascene, writes, “Sloth. . .is an oppressive sorrow, which. . .so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing. . .Hence sloth implies a certain weariness of work. . .a 'sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.'”5 He goes on to argue that sorrow – as an effect of sloth – is always evil because it is an intentional rejection of joy, or a refusal to experience the effects of love, especially divine love. That's the definition. But what does sloth, oppressive sorrow, look like in a person? We are quick in the 21st century to point out that sloth sounds an awful lot like clinical depression. And the two probably share some of the same observable traits. But we would miss the point of defining sloth if we simply shoved it into the clinical category of depression and left it there. Perhaps the difference that makes the difference between the two is that sloth – as a vice – is a bad habit. Not a condition or an illness or a psychic wound. But a bad habit. Sloth is the deliberate rejection of joy, the calculated refusal to allow the effects of love, esp. divine love, to touch the soul. This means that the slothful man has been shown divine love, received it as a gift, benefited from its promises, and yet refuses to exhibit any of its effects on him. In this way, sloth is the bad habit of ingratitude and the added sin of failing to bear witness to the generosity of Christ's gifts. What we normally think of as slothfulness arises out of this spiritual laziness: I can't be bothered to participate in the divine life except as it directly benefits me. The slothful man knows that he is obligated by baptism and his gifted share in the divine life to go out and proclaim the Good News of the Father's freely offered mercy to sinners. He himself as experienced this mercy. Yet! He refuses. That refusal, that bad habit of ingratitude and spiritual stinginess, produces an oppressive sorrow that only compounds and amplifies his sloth. 
Pippo Buono stands against sloth by living joyfully. He bears witness to divine love by acting, speaking, thinking joyfully – all as the direct result of getting and receiving the Lord's mercy for his sins. And lest he become prideful of his spiritual gifts and take too seriously the accolades that cardinals and fishwives are heaping upon him, he dresses like a clown, dances around the streets of Rome, and tells corny Latin jokes in choir. And not only does he do all these silly things out of love, he demands that his penitents and followers do them as well. Why? Because the joy that love demands of us is best expressed in humble acts of apparent foolishness.

Part II

Joe is the sacristan at St Dominic's parish here in NOLA. He's in his late 60's, a very humble, hardworking man who loves the Church and cherishes his job in the sacristy. Joe is also Barber to the Friars. He buzzes Dominican heads all over the city. And he loves it. Joe also has a gift for making this particular friar (me!) feel just a little self-conscious, and that's OK because he does it in a way that perfectly reflects his charity. Every time I see Joe, he says, “Fr Philip! It's always so good to see you! You have the best smile and you always brighten my day! Just being around you makes me feel better about the world! You're the smartest guy I know and I hope those guys at the seminary know how lucky they are to have you!” And he goes on and on in this vein for quite some time, and then he'll pause and say, “But I don't want you to get a big ego, so I'm gonna stop.” All I can do during these moments of praise is smile, nod, thank him, and wait for the inevitable conclusion. Why do these praise-sessions make me self-conscious? Because I know something about me that Joe doesn't: I am not easily given to being joyful nor am I always ready with a smile. In fact, I can be quite cynical and prone to the temptations of despair. Thanks to Augustine and Calvin I make a natural idealist living in a world that will never meet my standards. Thankfully, that's my dark side, and it doesn't win out very often. But this is the Fr. Philip Show not the Dr. Phil Show, so why I am telling you all this? For one simple reason: I chose “Philip Neri” as my religious name not because I am like him, but because I need to be more like him. 
Pippo exuded joy in his silliness. He wore humility like a crown, never taking it off. He was unafraid of being embarrassed; nonplussed by his social and ecclesial Betters. He took formal social events as an opportunity to remind himself and others that we are all going back to dust someday. Pippo understood the need for social order and formality and he respected authority as any good priest would; however, he never allowed any of that to overwhelm his ultimate goal, his final end: union with God. And he never allowed bella figura – good form – to ruin a chance to show sinners God's freely offered mercy. In fact, he wholeheartedly believed that his joyful silliness was the best way to reveal our Lord's mercy to those most in need of it. Pippo's antics made it easier for sinners to approach the throne and receive the gift from his consecrated hands. What he did over and over again is what all priests must be able to do when necessary: he made the Lord directly accessible when he seems to be at the most inaccessible. 
Joy – real joy, the effect of divine love and our charity – makes the Lord accessible to others through us. More specifically, your joy makes the Lord accessible to those whom you serve. And they need the Lord more than you will ever need your self-defined dignity. 
Our people live in this world, but they are not of it. This world demands constant sacrifice, constant praise. It harangues us to pay attention, spend, consume, waste, hurry up, demand, complain, be outraged, and whine. It demands that we do and say whatever it takes to Get Mine and hang on to it into the grave. Our sacrifices to the gods of this world can never be enough because they – the gods – know that they are finite creatures just pretending to be gods. If they ever get their fill of our misery, they will have to confess their finitude and abdicate their altars. So, to perpetuate their reign, they multiply our miseries and await our offerings. Unfortunately, our people will stand in line to make the proper sacrifices and then turn to us and wonder why their lives are a mess. And when they turn to you, hoping to see the Lord and some way out of their misery, who or what do you show them? (Your answer to that question will define your ministry). What do they see when they turn to you? A way into a life of grace? Or just another obstacle to overcome? Do they see a means of achieving freedom in Christ? Or a man too deeply committed to his clerical role to bend down and help? They could also see you as an easy source of cheap grace, or as a mark upon whom they can perpetuate a spiritual fraud. Maybe you're the one who will eagerly tell them what they want to hear, thus relieving them of a cross they choose to carry. Or maybe you will be the priest who agrees with their dissent and gives them permission to sin. 
What will they see when they turn to you? Better yet: what should they see when they turn to you? To answer this question fully would require me to start and finish a lecture series in pastoral theology and practice. I'll leave that burden to Fr. Krafft. Instead, looking over at my patron, Pippo Buono, I'll offer a short answer that requires some unpacking. A priest of Christ – lay or ordained – should always and everywhere appear to those in need as one who embodies and lives out that great Catholic ideal: veritas in caritate. That low groan you just heard came from the seminarians of second theology who are currently enduring my homiletics practicum. Veritas in caritate will populate their nightmares until the Reaper comes for them! Nonetheless, I would argue that this simple phrase – packed as it is with portent – should be engraved and gilded on the doors and walls of every rectory, priory, convent, monastery, and Catholic home on the globe. It contains all things necessary for carrying out one's ministry as a bearer of the Good News. It also has the distinction of being the adage that Pippo Buono lived out in all of his humble silliness. If you want to know why Pippo was so successful as an evangelist in Rome at a time when ecclesial corruption and licentiousness ruled, think: veritas in caritate. 
Earlier I noted Pippo's affinity for the Dominicans of his time. He was especially fond of Savonarola, the friar who ruled Florence and ended his life on a pyre as a heretic. Pippo admired the friar for his skillful preaching and zeal for the conversion of sinners. Savonarola went to deadly extremes in carrying out his program of reform, but Pippo nonetheless saw in him a soul burning with a desire for the truth of the faith to prevail. Pippo took to Savonarola's severity and, along with his knowledge and appreciation for Friar Thomas, tempered both with a practical wisdom that pushed him out into the streets to gather in the Lord's sheep. Without wavering from the truth of the faith, he cared for God's people in whatever way they needed. Because he loved, he clung to the truth. And because he clung to the truth, he loved. In Pippo, there wasn't a sliver of difference between preaching on the damning evils of sin and immediately absolving sinners in confession. When he needed to confront sinners on the street, he did so in way that brought them into the confessional – with genuine love for their souls. He was never above begging for others – food, clothes, jobs. Nor did he place himself below any man because of his station. To Pippo, all men and women were equally sinful and equally forgiven. And all of them deserved the attention of his Lord's servant. 
Embracing the phrase veritas in caritate as your pastoral motto can only lead to one, glorious effect: joy! Charity, as a virtue, produces both desire and joy. Desire and joy are effects of charity. If you preach, teach, and minister veritas in caritate then you will experience and exude the fires of joy, drawing to yourself those who most need to hear the Good News. But there's a significant danger here, one Pippo himself brushed against more than once. With great joy comes great temptation. After Cardinal Cusano had the relics of Papias and Maurus transferred to the Chiesa Nuova in 1590, Pope Gregory XIV tired to sneak a cardinal's biretta onto Pippo's head. Pippo leaned forward and whispered something in the pope's ear, persuading His Holiness to hold off making him a cardinal.6 Pippo endured and resisted many attempts of this kind to elevate him to the episcopate and even popular movements to declare him a living saint. A large part of his antics were meant to dissuade others from seeing him as a man of classical saintliness. The danger here, of course, is pride. At a time in the Church when hierarchy, station, money, and power were the daily currency of Rome, Pippo knew too well how easily it would be for him to be entombed in the layers of silk, brocade, silver, gold, and jewels. He wanted no part of an imperial Church. Whatever work he had left to do would be done as a beggar or a clown. . .not as a Prince of the Church. 
The dangers we face as priests and ministers in the 21st century are not exactly the same, but they rise from the same cardinal sin: pride. Success in ministry – successes like the ones Pippo managed – would draw the attention of the world. And with the world comes applause, prestige, wealth, and even power. How many bishops and priests have we seen in the last fifty years fall because they forgot to embody veritas in caritate? Books, speaking tours, websites, CD's, interviews with the press, requests for comments on current events – all fine in themselves, but also ways for pride to inflate the ego and the ego to become to a god. 
Even if you were to become a god only in your own mind, you would still fall into idolatry. How long would it be before your bishop becomes a meddling fool? Your brother priests jealous clerics? Your parishioners whiny know-it-alls? Looking back on your days at NDS, you would see the deep and cavernous flaws in your professors and formators. Safe to discard all that nonsense now. Because before you would be a wide-open road and clear-blue sky just waiting for you to make your next astonishingly brilliant move. And the only thing holding you back would be the drudgery of daily parish ministry and all those whinging sheep who can't seem to wash themselves more than once a month. You have a career to build! Important people to meet! Important meetings to attend! A golf game at 3 and drinks with the mayor at 5. . .OK. OK. You get my point. I hope. Being a successful spiritual father opens you up to the particular temptations of fame and fortune. So, the truly successful spiritual father never allows himself to forget that he is first and foremost a father. And a father cares for his children by telling them the truth in love. And by making sure that he himself is told the truth in love. Even when that truth stings.

Shifting gears a bit. Jesus says to his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” What is this? What did Jesus say to his disciples so that his joy may be in them and their joy may be complete? Right before this statement, Jesus was giving his disciples a metaphor for how he sees his relationship with them: the vine and the branches. He is the vine; we are the branches. As long as we remain with him, we will grow and thrive, producing much good fruit. Then he says, “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” How is his joy given to us and our joy made complete? By bearing much fruit and becoming his disciples. More than that, actually, he adds, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” Then he promises to complete our joy. But what does “complete our joy” mean here? We do all these things and then we find our joy complete. If joy is an effect of divine love, then our completed joy is an effect of completed divine love; that is, perfect divine love. In other words, if we remain in Christ, loving as we ought, bearing much fruit, and following the Father's commands, we will receive the effect of perfect love called perfect joy. We will find ourselves gazing upon the Beatific Vision. 

Pippo knew this well, so he lived his life as if he were always, already in sight of the Beatific Vision. What we might call his silliness was a means to an end: humility. Others saw his humble silliness and rightly identified its source: his joy. And Pippo knew the source and summit of his joy: his love for God and his Christ. In every way that matters, Pippo's ministry to sinners was an expression of his love for Christ and Christ's love for him. Without guile or boasting or weariness, he gave himself – sacrificed himself – to the holy cause of making known to sinners the Father's freely offered mercy. He died May 25, 1595 firmly attached to the vine of Christ.

1 Turks, Paul. Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy. Alba House, 1995, 99.
2 Ibid, 99.
3 ST.II-II.28.4
4 Turks, 13.
5 ST.II-II.35.1
6 Turks, 99.

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25 May 2015

Memebots of Gramscian Marxism

On this Memorial Day, we need to take some time to reflect on the direction and trajectory of the Republic. Maybe I read too much about the fall of the Roman Republic (corrupt elite, rise of lawyers, deficit spending, etc), but it seems to me that we are Swirling the Bowl.

Here's an excellent post from 2006 on the scourge of Cultural Marxism that is crippling us:

[. . .] Another consequence of Stalin’s meme war is that today’s left-wing antiwar demonstrators wear kaffiyehs without any sense of how grotesque it is for ostensible Marxists to cuddle up to religious absolutists who want to restore the power relations of the 7th century CE. In Stalin’s hands, even Marxism itself was hollowed out to serve as a memetic weapon — it became increasingly nihilist, hatred-focused and destructive. The postmodern left is now defined not by what it’s for but by what it’s against: classical-liberal individualism, free markets, dead white males, America, and the idea of objective reality itself.

The first step to recovery is understanding the problem. Knowing that suicidalist memes were launched at us as war weapons by the espionage apparatus of the most evil despotism in human history is in itself liberating. Liberating, too, it is to realize that the Noam Chomskys and Michael Moores and Robert Fisks of the world (and their thousands of lesser imitators in faculty lounges everywhere) are not brave transgressive forward-thinkers but pathetic memebots running the program of a dead tyrant. [. . .]

If you don't know who Antonio Gramsci was, go here for a quick education on how economic Marxism became cultural Marxism in the West. Gramscian Marxism was the foundational theory of my grad school years. . .but I got better.

I pray that our culture does too.
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24 May 2015

The boundless gift that is the Holy Spirit!

NB. Being of gimpy knee and puny countenance, I am unable to preside or preach at a Mass today. So, here's a decent-enough rerun.

Pentecost Sunday (C) 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
St. Dominic Church, NOLA 

 The Lord our God keeps His word! Through His prophets He promised the gift of a Messiah who would suffer as a servant for sinners and die at the hands of his enemies for the sake of the world. The long-awaited Messiah came among us as a child: born of a virgin; raised on the Law; and anointed by the Holy Spirit at the River Jordan. During his three- year ministry, he reveals the power of God by healing the diseased and injured; raising the dead to new life; feeding thousands with food enough for only a few; liberating souls held captive by unclean spirits; and teaching the word of spirit and truth to anyone who would listen. He is opposed at every turn by jealousy, greed, ambition, and ignorance; and, finally, he is betrayed by one he calls a friend. Falsely accused, illegally tried, he is found guilty by a mob and executed by the Empire. But he makes a promise to his disciples: “. . .the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything. . .” The Lord our God keeps His word! To his disciples he promises the gift of an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to renew the body and soul of his Church. 

The Lord our God kept His promise to send among us a Savior to suffer and die for our sins. That Savior, Jesus the Christ, promised that the Father would also send among us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to teach us and to remind us of everything he had said and done. Gathered together in the Upper Room—terrified, despairing, anxious—the disciples wait to be discovered. Do they remember the Lord's promise? His warning? Do they have any idea what's about to happen to them? “Suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind. . .Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. . .” One Holy Spirit roars into the Upper Room. Divides. Then descends all at once upon each one of the disciples. Not a different spirit to each. But One Spirit to each, all at once. The same Holy Spirit given to every disciple. And though each disciple receives the same Spirit, each one manifests a different gift. When all of these different gifts are brought together with one heart and mind and the freely given in service to preaching and teaching of the Good News, the Church is born. The Lord our God keeps His promises; He keeps His word. 

Before he begins his Passion, Jesus says to the disciples: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” Whoever loves Christ will make good on his promises. And whoever makes good on Christ's promises will be loved by the Father. Jesus says “we will make our dwelling” with those who keep the Word. We. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Feast of Pentecost—the birth of the Church—celebrates the day, the moment when the Holy Spirit came to dwell with us and remain with us. With the Spirit among us we are not only capable of keeping Christ's word, we are do so with all the strength and integrity of the Blessed Trinity. Through our varied gifts we—each one of us—manifests the Spirit for the glory of God, drawing in and teaching anyone who longs for God's mercy. Our gifts are made purer, stronger, holier in their work for the kingdom, and we are made more perfect in love by sharing God's love. The Holy Spirit is sent to be our Advocate, the one who defends us against the dark accusations of the world. But we are not permitted to simply hide away in a room and shake ourselves silly in fear of the world. The Spirit enlivens, empowers, ignites, and He pushes us out in the world as witnesses to the freely given mercy of God.

Think about it. What do the disciples do the moment the Holy Spirit endows them with His gifts? “[They] began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” Different languages? Yes. Though all of the disciples were Galileans they were understood by Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Asians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs. They were also understood by “both Jews and converts to Judaism.” In other words, not only were they speaking different languages, they were speaking in a way that anyone who heard them could understand what they were saying. How is this possible? They were given the gift of being able to speak to the deepest longing of every human creature, the desire of every man, woman, and child to love and be loved by their Creator. The gift of the Church—then and now—is to be the Body and Word of Christ, the living sacrament of God's mercy to all of creation. With the Holy Spirit, the Church—all of us—speaks the language of divine love when we are united in heart and mind in the service of the Gospel. We keep His word, and He dwells among us. His spiritual gifts are boundless. 

His gifts are boundless. But are we ready to receive them and put them to their proper use? Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians, “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit. . .To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” For some benefit—the benefit of the one who receives the gift and all those for whom the gift will be used. The Holy Spirit does not give private gifts, gifts to be used for one's personal benefit. All gifts of the Holy Spirit are given for the benefit of the whole Church and her mission. “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body. . .For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. . .we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” One Holy Spirit given to and received by many different parts to make up on Body in Christ. This means that whatever spiritual gifts I might possess, that you might possess, belong to the whole body not just me or you. And b/c our gifts belong to the whole body, our use of them influences the whole body. Good, evil, indifferent. How we use these gifts colors the Church, leaves a mark on the Body of Christ. How we use these gifts determines whether or not we are keeping Christ's word, fulfilling his promise. 

We sang along with the Psalmist, “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.” If we are to be servants of this renewal, we must also sing, “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the body and soul of your Church.” And if we are to be servants of this renewal, we must eagerly step forward and offer ourselves in service to the Gospel. Pope Francis urges us not to become a “baby-sitter” Church. We could add: do not become a museum, a social club, a something-to-do-before-the-Saints-game. If we truly believe that the Holy Spirit is among us, if we truly believe that Christ our Lord is here with us right now, how can we even think about not leaving this place and shouting about the mighty acts of God. How do I think of anything else if I truly believe that the Creator-God of the universe loves me? How do I wake up in the morning and not immediately give Him thanks for the gift of life and my freedom from sin? The renewal of the Church will not come from Rome or D.C. or the archbishop's office. It will come from the pews of St Dominic, Our Lady of the Rosary, from the parish; from your homes, your schools. But it must start with the family. With you. Use the gifts you have been given to renew the body and soul of the Church. Fidelity, strength, perseverance, humility, and above all: love, divine love. You have them all. Put them to work for Christ, keeping his word. Put them to work for the Church, and dwell forever as a mighty act of God.

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23 May 2015

Criticizing Vatican Two

Drew Christiansen at America Magazine has a post up titled, "What Critics Get Wrong About the Significance of Vatican II."


He quotes Georgetown University church historian John O’Malley, S.J., “If, indeed, we look at the number and importance of Vatican II’s teachings [. . .] Vatican II is not Council Lite but the very opposite.” 


Though some in the Church criticize the Council as "merely pastoral," implying that its teachings are somehow less binding on Catholics for being so, my sense is that most criticisms of the Council aren't actually criticisms of the Council's teachings per se. That is, what seems to be most troubling about the Council is the way in which its teachings were interpreted and presented to the People of God. 


Fr. O'Malley lists what he sees as the significant teachings of the Council:


-- what God has revealed is not a set of propositions but (Christ’s) very person;


True. However, because we understand and communicate truth in propositional form, it is incumbent upon the Church to make sure that not-just-any-old statement about the person of Christ is taught as true. The sentence, "God revealed the person of Christ not a set of propositions" is itself a proposition.    


-- Sacred Scriptures is inerrant only in what “serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith”; 


True. However, post-Conciliar interpreters often begin with human experience and then go to Scripture looking for support for predetermined conclusions, thus elevating shifting cultural norms over the eternal truths we need to grow in holiness and increase our faith. 


-- the purpose of church is to promote the holiness of its members; 


True. However, what counts as "holiness" post-VC2 is often framed in purely political/social justice terms and fails to give proper place to: the reality of personal sin, the necessity of personal repentance, and the possibly of excluding oneself from heaven. . .all of which are given attention in the documents of VC2.


-- the "people of God" is a valid, crucially important and, moreover, traditional expression of the reality of the church; 


True. However, post-VC2 many interpreters chose to understand this title in purely liberal-democratic terms, framing what is clearly "family language" as a sort of ecclesial democracy that undermines the intrinsic hierarchical nature of the Church. . .which VC2 teaches is essential to understanding our mission.


-- the church has “the responsibility of exerting itself for the well-being of the world”; 


True. However, again, many post-VC2 interpreters understood "well-being" in purely material or political terms, framing the Church's social responsibilities as a partisan political agenda without reference to the Kingdom, or collapsing the Kingdom into an obtainable material utopia brought about through socio-political revolution. . .a possibility that VC2 explicitly rejects.


-- “the dignity and excellence of political freedom”; 


True. However, "political freedom" came to mean something like "no political position taken by a Catholic can be criticized as unfaithful to the Church b/c Vatican Two said we are free to be political." This is a tragic and far-reaching mistake in understanding the true nature of our freedom in Christ. . .which VC2 teaches is essential to our human flourishing and eternal life. 


-- freedom to follow conscience in choice of religion;


True. However, some post-VC2 interpreters used the natural human right to choose one's religious beliefs as a bludgeon against Catholic doctrines that they found objectionable, thus turning an observation on the natural law into a device for dissent against their own faith. 


-- the dignity of conscience, ‘that most secret core and the sanctuary of the human person."


Again, true. However, conscience was re-defined post-VC2 to eliminate any natural connection to revealed truth, leaving it to mean little more than "this is what I want to believe is true." Conscience is now understood by many Catholics to be an absolute defense against any and all objections to believing a falsehood. Conscience discovers The Truth; it cannot create My Truth.


So, we must be vigilant in distinguishing between the actual teachings of VC2 in its documents and what came to be thought of as its teachings. Both those who misinterpret Vatican Two and those who unjustly criticize the Council regularly fail to make this crucial distinction. 


Read the whole thing.


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