14 July 2012

Fr. Hollywood says, "Make it new!"

As a way of indirectly answering a few questions I got while teaching last week, here's a repost from 2010 on modern liturgical abuse. . .

In the early 20th century, the American crypto-fascist ex-pat poet, Ezra Pound, issued a three word manifesto that came to define the modernist movement in poetics:  "Make it new."  Reacting to what he saw as the calcified conservativism of formal verse in the West, Pound urged poets to strike out into unexplored poetical territories and bring to the art of the image and line the perpetual revolution of novelty for novelty's sake.

Pound's orders were faithfully followed by his loyal troops and the hydra-headed monster of modernist poetry laid waste to traditional versification.  The influence of his revolution of novelty was not limited to the arcane practices of poets.  Novelists, dramatists, artists, musicians, dancers, architects, all heard the call of "make it new" and went about deconstructing centuries of subtle, complex beauty with the fierce simplicity of the single, powerful image. 

As any Catholic who has witnessed the dissolution of our faith's liturgical heritage can attest, Pound's revolution had no respect for the Church or her treasures.  The central document outlining the Second Vatican Council's plan for liturgical renewal, Sacrosanctum concilium, was snatched by Poundian revolutionaries in the Church and used to dismantle the 500 year old tradition of worship in the Catholic faith.  Pope John Paul II, and to a much greater degree, Pope Benedict XVI, have mitigated, if not yet entirely reversed, the lasting damage done to the liturgical heritage of the Church by insisting on the organic development of liturgy and the need to read the Council documents with a hermeneutic of continuity.   What remains of the Novelty Revolution lies mostly in the misplaced creative efforts of priests and religious who, for whatever reason, see it as their vocation to make sure that the Church's worship remains "relevant" and "up to date." 

By placing relevance and novelty above organic development and continuity, liturgical Poundians ignore the historical and ecclesial nature of the liturgy and privilege their subjective cultural assessments above the real spiritual needs of their charges.  The widespread phenomenon of liturgical abuse is an insidious form of clericalism that encourages those with clerical power to use that power to inflict their private preferences, political agendas, and ideological quirks on congregations powerless to stop them.  Though Catholics have seen a dramatic decline in liturgical abuse in the last twenty-years, abuses still occur, and in some places, abuses are the norm.

Liturgical abuse comes in three varieties:

1).  a misplaced emphasis on the immanent at the expense of the transcendent
2).  the elevation of the purely intellectual at the expense of the affective/experiential
3).  an emphasis on the local at the expense of the universal

(NB.  there is absolutely nothing wrong with the liturgy expressing the immanent, the intellectual, or the local.  The problem is an emphasis on these aspects at the expense of their balancing opposites.)

Immanent vs. transcendent

In reaction to the over-clericalization of the medieval liturgy, Poundians worked hard to redirect our liturgical attention to the presence of the divine among us.  Initially a necessary reform, this redirection quickly became a foil for all-things-transcendent.  The most notable example of this abuse is the almost-disappearance of the notion of the Mass as a sacrifice.  In order to displace the over-hyped role of the priest, Poundians turned the Mass into a communal meal, distributing the larger portion of the priest's role to the community and making Mass all about bringing the community together.  We still see this happening in the unnecessary use of communion ministers; the priest refusing to use to presider's chair; folksy language used to replace liturgical language; and the illicit use of gender-inclusive language.

Intellectual vs. affective

Many older Catholics lament the demise of traditional devotions after Vatican Two.  In an effort to bring our undivided attention back to the celebration of the Mass, Poundians waged war against devotional practices.  Seen as private, affective luxuries, devotions were railed against as willful acts of rebellion against the need to build community through individual "active participation" in the Mass.  Modernist innovations in the secular arts always required some knowledge of the theory that produced the art.  Pollock's paintings only make sense if you understand what he is trying to do in the context of traditional painting techniques.  Poundian liturgical revolutionaries were quick to dismiss criticisms of their innovations with ringing calls for more catechesis--more education would somehow diffuse the overwhelming discomfort most Catholics felt when confronted with disruptive, alien liturgical practices.  We still see the intellectual being privileged over the affective in abuses like monologues on the meanings of liturgical symbols; an insistence on equating stark, barren sanctuaries with "noble simplicity"; the deconstruction of traditional church architecture as a way of embodying ideas about the nature of community; and the dumbing down of liturgical language so that immediate cognitive understanding trumps the more profound experiences to be found in elevated language and ritual.

Local vs. universal

As part of the effort to undermine a universally told story about the faith, Poundians began emphasizing the need for more and more local options in the celebration of the liturgy.  Citing the Council's call for inculturation, the "Make it new" crowd attacked the notion that our liturgical worship connects us to a historically-bound narrative of God's Self-revelation; in other words, their novelty revolution would not tolerate a liturgy that privileged tradition as the clearest lens through which the Church understands her historical relationship with God.  Building on the growth and spread of subjectivity and relativism, the Poundians latched onto a rarefied notion of the local church ("this church-community") and opposed it to the universal Church as the most authentic expression of catholic identity.  This move allowed them to argue for more and more specificity, more and more idiosyncratic innovations in how the liturgy was celebrated at the parish level.  It quickly became commonplace for parishes to be identified by their "worship-style," and even Masses celebrated at different times within the same parish were described in terms of style.  This abuse is most clearly seen in so-called ethnic parishes where attempts are made to accommodate the dominant culture of the parishioners (Latino, African-American, Vietnamese) at the expense of the universal story of our faith. (NB. not all cultural accommodation is necessarily an abuse; abuses are almost always perversions of allowable uses.)

Liturgical Poundians are on the decline.  Like their counterparts in literature, the excesses of novelty for novelty's sake have proven that the revolution has no underlying principle of restraint, no intrinsic limits.  What counts as "new" is itself subject to the whims of those deemed avant-garde enough to define the term.  Poundians have been rightly criticized for becoming staid, predictable, and highly orthodox in their privileging of a late-20th century liturgical aesthetic. Anyone who has clashed with a professional liturgist knows that the principles they espouse are as plastic as they need to be to justify the preferred worldview of the liturgist.  Rubrics, magisterial documents, liturgical law, tradition, all form a  repugnant canon to those who see it as their sacred ministry to shape the liturgical lives of the less enlightened.

Though it is not entirely clear that young Catholics will embrace the ancient liturgical tradition of the Church in large numbers, what is clear is that the age of experimentation is over.  Novelty for the sake of novelty is an exhausted project.  Deo gratis!

P.S.  Here's another post on how to address liturgical abuse in your parish.

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Not one of us is ready (Audio file added)

15th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Audio file (from the vigil Mass)

Before God got a hold on him, Amos was a sheepherder and a tree surgeon. Before God found him on the road to Damascus, Paul was a lawyer and a zealous persecutor of Christians. Before Jesus walked past Matthew, he was a tax collector; James, John, Peter were fishermen; Luke was a doctor. What about Mary? She was a teenaged girl betrothed to Joseph. We have a prophet, twelve apostles, and the Mother of God. From who and what they were before hearing their call, all these ordinary people became extraordinary players in even more extraordinary events. Amos is called to chastise a corrupt priest of the royal court. Paul is called to cease his persecution of Jesus' followers and become one of them. The other apostles are all called to leave their ordinary jobs, to become students of the Master, and give their lives to the preaching of the Good News. And Mary, a virgin girl, is called to become the woman who bears Christ into the world. By the Word of our loving God, ordinary people—just plain folks—are pulled out of the tedious minutiae of just getting through another day and fashioned into instruments of the Divine Will and set out to accomplish a divine purpose. If God will use shepherds, fishermen, a doctor, and a virgin girl to complete His work, why wouldn't He use you, use any one of us? 

If called upon to serve a divine purpose most of us would probably react the same way most of the Biblical figures reacted: Who me? Why me? I'm just a bank teller, a cashier, a stay-at-mom, a fast food cook! I'm just a high school graduate; I barely passed my religion classes; I don't like to speak in public; I'm a Big Sinner, probably the Biggest! Given enough time, we could find a thousand and one reasons to avoid being called, a thousand and one excuses not to do whatever ridiculous and potentially embarrassing job God wants us to do. And if we couldn't find the one thousand and second excuse, we'd make one up! Alright, maybe I'm projecting here, maybe I'm telling you more about how I reacted to the call than predicting how you might react. But my point should be clear: when pressed into divine service, quite a few of us truly believe that we are unworthy of the honor, unfit for the job. And we're right to believe it. We are unworthy, unfit to do God's will. . .that is, until He makes us both worthy and fit, until He gifts us with all that we need to accomplish the work He's given us to do. To the shepherd Amos, He gives a prophet's voice. To the Pharisee, Paul, He gives a motivating vision. To Peter, John, James, Andrew, all the apostles, He gives knowledge, wisdom, and authority. And to Mary, He gives a sinless start. What gifts has He given you so that you might complete His work? 

Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus, assuring them that he is absolutely confident that they have received their gifts from God and that they have the will and fervor necessary to use those gifts in God's service. When he writes his letter to the Ephesians, Paul is a prisoner of the Roman Empire and from his prison cell he preaches the gospel of freedom in Christ. He shouts out God's Word across the known world. Amos, a sheep-herder and dresser of sycamores, is sent by God to prophesy to Israel. Angrily confronted by the priest, Amaziah, and ordered to leave the temple, Amos says, “I was sent by God to speak His word.” And Jesus, calling the Twelve together, sends his friends into the world, giving them authority to command unclean spirits, to preach and to teach. A prisoner, a sheep-herder, a tax-collector, a handful of fishermen, a doctor, and a few ambitious corporate climbers—all chosen, all taught, all sent to do one thing: speak the Living Word of God in spirit and in truth so that the heirs of the Father might know that their inheritance is at hand. Not one of these apostles or prophets goes willingly. Not one goes without apprehension. Not one of them leaves to do God's will without believing that he is unprepared, unworthy. But they go b/c they trust that God prepares them and makes them worthy to bring His will to completion. 

As baptized men and women, we have already accepted the call from God to be His apostles, to be those who go out and preach His gospel in word and deed. As the Body of Christ together in this building, we are here to say “Amen, so be it” to God's charge that we become Christs where we are. And though we may believe ourselves unprepared and unworthy, we are nonetheless vowed to do exactly that. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul takes the time to describe to his brothers and sisters the origin and flowering of their work as heirs to the kingdom. His detailed account of their creation in love and their recreation in Christ's sacrifice is not just pretty theological rhetoric. His goal is to open their eyes and ears to the truth of their identity as ones who have been picked out, selected to do the job God has given them to do. Do you feel unprepared? Who doesn't? Nonetheless, you are a daughter of the Father, an heir. Are you unworthy? Who isn't? Nonetheless, you are a son of the Father, an heir. Are you a prisoner? A shepherd? A fisherman? Probably not. Are we without tools? Training? Experience? Maybe. Nonetheless, we are sent. The only important question now is: will we go? Or will we wrack our brains to invent that one thousand and second excuse to leave God's gifts untouched and go on with the tedious business of just another day? Or maybe, we are willing to pick up His gifts and do His will there's something or someone stopping us. Amos is threatened by a priest who invokes both divine and worldly power. Paul is threatened by imperial Rome. The apostles are threatened by temple, empire, and the rulers of this world—priests, soldiers, and demons. Though threatened from every direction by every force available, Amos, Paul, and the apostles go out anyway and do what their Father has commanded them to do. 

Who or what is stopping you? The government? Your spouse? The kids? Your job? If so, listen again to Paul, the prisoner of Rome: “In [Christ] we were. . .chosen, destined. . .so that we might exist for the praise of his glory...In [Christ] you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, [you also] were sealed with the promised holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance. . .” What worldly power can un-choose you? What relationship do you enjoy that trumps your inheritance as a child of the Father? What deficiency in training, moral purity, motivation, or intelligence can defeat the promise of your baptism? “In accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us,” we are free from every deficiency that limits us, holds us back, or fights to defeat us. His grace, His gifts are lavished upon us and in harmony with these gifts we are forgiven our transgressions and sent out as apostles to give testimony to the freedom we enjoy as God's possessions. So, if we are timid or lax or afraid of doing what we have already promised to do, then it is more than past time to ask for strength, determination, and courage. There's work to be done, God's work. And when we do this work with the Holy Spirit, we are more than merely capable; we are made worthy, fit, and thoroughly prepared. In truth, we are truly blessed. 

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On becoming a heretic

Excellent take-down of that WaPo story on dissident catechists who refused to sign a fidelity oath in the Diocese of Arlington.

One observation that had me cheering:

[. . .] Based on years of reading Post coverage of the many doctrinal battles between liberal and conservative Episcopalians, it appears that it absolutely crucial for conservative Episcopalians to obey their liberal bishops (and everyone heads to secular courts if they cannot work things out), but it isn’t terribly important for liberal Catholics to obey their conservative bishops, even when those bishops are acting in obedience to that Bishop of Rome guy. 

During my many years as a Episcopagan--yes, that's how I identified myself--, I argued that it was crucial for traditionalists in the Episcopal Church to obey the revisionist decisions of the democratically elected General Convention.  

The Holy Spirit was always Do Something New and we couldn't allow obstinate worshipers of nostalgia to prevent us from Moving Forward.  The very idea that 20th century Christians would look backwards for inspiration was abhorrent.  

Every decision of the GC that opened up the church to Our Future, every vote that brought us closer to the Wonders of Full Inclusion made me tingle all over! 

It wasn't until I heard that the Great Process of Revision was leading us to discussions about scraping the Book of Common Prayer in favor of a three-ring binder that I began to question the Wisdom of Permanent Theological Revolution.  

When I sheepishly pointed out to my fellow revolutionaries that the Great Process endangered the one thing that all of us--revisionists and traditionalists--revered, the BCP, I was told that the BCP is oppressive, exclusive, narrow, and a tool of racism/sexism/homophobia.  Not only must we revise the BCP, we must destroy it to serve the Permanent Revolution!  

My friends in the Church, the ones who had preached disobedience to authority and the glories of diversity, difference, and full-inclusion, shut me down and beat me with demands for silence. I learned that diversity and difference really means "diversity and difference that agrees with our agenda."

That's when I put on my swimsuit and came across the Tiber.  And on this side of the river, I found more than a few Episcopagans disguised as Catholics.  They did little to actually hide themselves and behaved exactly like my former friends.  

They rail against institutional authority while using their institutional authority to shut down opposition. They decry the abuse of power while abusing their own power.  They cast themselves as The Oppressed while happily opposing anyone who disagreed with them.  And they snark against the shadowy workings of Old Men in Rome while working in the shadows as a clique all their own.

Thankfully, the Roman Catholic Church isn't run like a parliament, so their revolutionary fervor rarely causes much long-term damage.

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13 July 2012

Is that wolf I smell?

14 Week OT (F)
 Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA

Wolves. Sheep. Serpents. And doves. There's a veritable Noah's Ark in the gospel this evening, a whole zoo's worth of critters living in Jesus' imagination! In the wolf, there's a predator's singular focus on his prey and the cold cruelty of instinct. In the sheep, there's a docility, an innocence, a need to be protected. Serpents are cunning, calculating, and dangerously patient. Doves are gentle and pure. Jesus says that he is sending us as prey among the predators, so we must learn to be both shrewd and gentle, both cunning and pure. How do we manage that? When we are handed over to be prosecuted for treason or heresy, we need not worry about what we will say in our defense. Jesus assures us, “You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” But if we will be given what to say in our own defense at the moment of greatest need, then why must we like both the serpent and the dove while living as sheep among the wolves? If the Holy Spirit will defend us, and use our voices to do so, then we must be prepared to hear His Word. Before we can speak, we must listen. 

Sheep are notoriously stupid animals. Too stupid to learn much of anything. Wolves are much, much more intelligent, but they are largely driven by predatory instinct and not very obedient. So, Jesus is sending us to live as stupid prey animals among intelligent predators. But we are to be shrewd and gentle. Serpents have a rep for being sly, patient, manipulative, so they would probably make good students but dangerous friends. Doves don't exactly inspire wonder with their smarts, but they are beautiful, and they have a history of showing up at just the right time. Since the Spirit of the Father will be given to us when we need Him, our serpentine cunning and dove-like gentleness aren't really meant to be primary defenses against the wolves. Our primary defense is the Holy Spirit! Shrewdness and gentleness prepare us to receive the Spirit of the Father and to speak His Word. So, our hearing must be astute, and our listening docile—ready to be taught. To receive His Spirit requires docility, and to speak His Word in the Spirit requires ingenuity. To receive His Spirit requires the peace that comes with obedience, and to speak His Word in the Spirit requires the courage, trust, and fortitude that only He can give. 

Wolves will never fear sheep. Nor stop hunting them. So, sheep will always need a shepherd to protect them. The Holy Spirit is our protector, and if we will hear Him speak to us, we will grow in obedience, docility, and faith. This doesn't mean that we should nurture stupidity or timidity and dumbly wait to be rescued. It means that we throw ourselves into the source of Truth itself—God Himself; learn all we can learn about Him from Him; and then, commit ourselves to relying wholly and alone on His care. Are we resolved to being preachers of the truth and teachers of our apostolic faith? Are we fully given over to being wily promoters of God's justice and glowing examples of His mercy? Some of the sheep in the flock smell faintly of wolf. Jesus warns us that there will be those among us who seek to divide the flock, separate off the vulnerable as easy pickings. The Spirit of the Father will never speak with the voice of a hungry wolf, or a sneaky snake. He chooses His sheep—sheep who are prepared with His abundant help to speak His Word, and see it done. So, we listen with sharp ears and docile hearts, ready to learn. That is how we will endure. 

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On the Scandalous State of Catholic Catechesis

Thanks to the archdiocese's Office of Religious Education, I've been teaching basic and advanced certification class for catechists these last few weeks.

Without exception, the veteran teachers in these classes have been attentive, curious, hard-working and. . .surprisingly. . .just a little upset.


Yes, just a little upset.  Maybe surprised is the better word.  In every class so far, I've been told that the information we're covering is largely new to them, or the theology we're using to explain the teachings of the Church is one they've never heard before.

What are you teaching these teachers, Father?!

The Catholic faith.  Plain and simple:  nothing more than the apostolic faith contained in the Creeds, the liturgies, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Granted, my spin on these is decidedly Dominican-Thomistic, but we are using the most basic texts available to explore what the Church teaches about prayer, the sacraments, and worship.  

And. . .the teachers have found much of what the Church teaches to be. . .surprising.  In every class so far we've had a student-initiated discussion that starts with, "Father, I've been teaching CCD for ____ years and no one ever told me _____!"

Any student of mine from the past knows that the focus of my classes is always the text in front of us.  What does the text actually say?  Why does the text say this?  Why does it say what it says in this specific way?  

Deliberately set aside are questions of personal experience and feelings. For example, in discussing the Real Presence, we look at the relevant paragraphs from the Catechism, etc. and spend our time "unpacking" the language used to teach the truth of Christ's sacramental presence in the Eucharist.  

How we have experienced the Real Presence, or how we feel about the Church's teaching on the Real Presence is entirely irrelevant to the truth of the teaching.  In the initial stages of learning about God's Self-revelation in the Eucharist, our personal take on the revelation matters not one iota.  

Why does this old-fashioned method of closely reading texts cause surprise/wonder among veteran catechists?  They have been taught to teach in a way that privileges experiences and feelings above intellectual content. Are experiences/feelings important to learning the faith?  Absolutely.  But we have experiences of the faith, feelings about the faith.  In other words, the object of our experiences and feelings is the faith, and, in the absence of intellectual content, we are abandoned to do nothing more than tell stories and emote.

When you combine a 40 year legacy of institutional intellectual dissent with an experiential/emotive pedagogy, you get The Current State of Abysmal Ignorance about the Faith. You get a roomful of veteran catechists who are surprised/upset to learn that they never understood the Church's teaching on the basic truths of the faith b/c they were never taught the faith. 

You also get the occasional catechist who rejects the most basic teachings of the Church and even opposes the notion that the Church has the right and responsibility to teach the faith.  

Case in point:  the Diocese of Arlington recently asked its 5,000 volunteer catechists to sign a declaration of fidelity to the Creed and the magisterium.  Four volunteers refused to sign and resigned.  These women get points for having the integrity to resign.  What's interesting is how the reporter describes one woman who refused to sign the absurdly obvious declaration:

Kathleen Riley knows her beliefs on the male-only priesthood and contraception put her at odds with leaders of her church. But as a fifth-generation Catholic who went to a Catholic school and grew up to teach in one, Riley feels the faith deeply woven through her.

Riley's beliefs do not "put her at odds with leaders of her church."  Her beliefs put her at odds with the apostolic faith. But b/c she feels the faith deeply, her rejection of the Church's ancient teaching on the all-male priesthood and the evil of artificial contraception should not disqualify her from teaching Catholic children their tradition of faith, a faith that cannot be sliced up into discrete parts and digested individually. There's no disputing that Riley feels the faith deeply.  But what exactly is she having feelings about?  What is the object of her emotions?  It can't be the faith b/c she doesn't accept the truth of the faith.

The rest of the article trots out all the wearying cliches professional dissidents use to justify their continuing opposition to the Church:  "conscience," "abuse of authority," "polls show most Catholics ignore church teachings," "the bishops vs. the Holy Spirit," ad. nau.  But at the root of the catechetical problem is the widespread rejection of the idea that the faith has intellectual content that can be handed on and the elevation of personal experience and feelings about the faith to the Chair of St. Peter.

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11 July 2012

Go find the lost sheep. . .

St. Benedict
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

If you are confused after hearing the gospel, please don't think that you are alone! The same teacher who told his disciples to go out into the world and preach the Good News. . .the same teacher who healed Gentiles in the presence of those disciples; talked to an unclean Samaritan woman and fussed at his disciples who told him not to; and even sat down at table with tax collectors and prostitutes over the objections of his disciples. . .the same teacher who set himself the task of breaking just about every purity law on the books and earned for himself a reputation as a dangerous heretic and madman. . .this same teacher is now sending those same disciples out as apostles to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, and he says to them before they go, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” After violating so many Jewish taboos, why is Jesus suddenly so squeamish about his apostles preaching to pagans and Samaritans? Jewish officialdom has rejected him, so why waste time and energy preaching to those who have heard the Good News and said, “No, thanks”? God promised the Messiah to the Jews. And so, to the lost sheep of Israel are the apostles sent. 

How do we reconcile Jesus' words and deeds during his public ministry with his parting orders to the newly minted apostles? The Lord knows something that his apostles do not: the apostolic ministry to preach the Good News will not end when the last of them dies. In fact, their preaching ministry as apostles won't truly commence until the Holy Spirit arrives and sets the whole bunch of them on fire! Given the Lord's inclusive words and deeds in their presence; then, his instructions to limit themselves to the Jews; and then, the Holy Spirit's inspiration to set the whole world on fire with his Word. . .we can safely assume that Jesus isn't limiting their ministry, he's concentrating it; that is, with a truly daunting task ahead of them—evangelizing every living creature—the Lord focuses his apostles on a workable task: just preach to the Jews. If we think this for a moment, it makes perfect sense. Who is better prepared to hear that the promises made by God through His prophets have been fulfilled in the coming of Christ Jesus? 

Hosea sets the scene for us. The nation God gave to His people is decadent, luxurious, ripe to the point of being rotten. The more it prospers under His blessing, the more it turns away from Him to idolatry, erecting altars and pillars to alien gods. They blame their spiritual adultery on political turmoil, and Hosea asks, “Since they do not fear the Lord, what can the king do for them?” Then his prophesies, “Sow for yourselves justice. . .break up for yourselves a new field, for it is time to seek the Lord.” And it is time for those who belong to the Lord to seek His lost sheep; thus, Jesus sends his apostles to those who are in most urgent need of the Good News, those who know the Covenant of Abraham yet live as if Abraham never spoke to God. Peter, James, John go to the lost sheep of Israel and along the way they find more and more lost sheep needing a shepherd. The Holy Spirit will not let them leave these all alone, so the Word—like a wild fire—spreads. And the people of God, those adopted as His children, grows and grows, beyond the lost sheep, into a nation of priests and prophets, a body of apostles sent out to find and rescue the lost, the wounded, those thrown away, anyone who desires to be loved as a creature created in the image of God. Go out, then, and show the world that no one is too small, too poor, too idolatrous, too decadent, too sinful to be called unworthy of the Father's saving mercy! 

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09 July 2012

Confessions. . .


I confess. . .

Had class this morning at St Catherine of Siena. 

Went to the archdiocesan office to pick up a roster.

Came home and had lunch.

Took a nap.  OK!  Took a longish nap.

And didn't write a new homily for this evening's Mass.

I recycled one. . .sorta. . .I edited one, and it wasn't very good the first time I used it.

Happy now?

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08 July 2012

Audio file for homily: 14th Sun OT

Recorded today's homily at the 5.30pm Mass. . .

An amazing lack of faith?

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An amazing lack of faith?

14th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Audio File Download

We have just heard read one of the most disturbing sentences found in the New Testament. Left unexplained, this sentence could undermine the legitimacy of the Church, cause irreparable harm to the faith of billions, and hand our enemies the spiritual equivalent of nuclear bomb. This astonishing sentence is almost casually presented, composed with a dangerous indifference to how it might damage Christ's credibility among his future followers—those like us—who will read it and be tempted to despair. That we have not succumb to despair, that the faith of billions has not been harmed, that Christ's credibility has not been damaged is a testament to our ancestors in religion, the men and women who wrestled courageously through the centuries with the demons of doubt, worry, and spiritual cowardice. Mark tells us that Jesus goes home, and he is rejected as a prophet by his hometown neighbors. They doubt his power by questioning his credentials, “Isn't this guy just a local boy?” And they were offended. “So,” Mark casually writes, “[Jesus] was not able to perform any mighty deed there. . .” The Son of God, the Messiah, was not able to bring his Father's mighty power, His reconciling mercy to Nazareth! The Christ is rendered powerless to perform might deeds in his own hometown. 

How does Jesus react to this failure? Mark tells us, “He was amazed at their lack of faith.” That's a charitable description of how the hometown folks greeted their native son. Jesus goes to the synagogue and teaches his Father's Word. Those who hear him teach are astonished by the power and authority of his teaching. But rather than open their hearts and minds to the truth of the good news, they allow Jesus' familiarity, the fact that he is homegrown to confuse their judgment. They recognize his power—“What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!”—yet they cannot see the hand of the Father through the fog of their contempt. Instead of obeying—listening to—the Word proclaimed with divine authority, they choose to doubt, “Where did this man get all this? Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and are not his sisters here with us?” And b/c they choose to be offended rather than enlightened, they cannot trust; they cannot receive the gift of God's mercy and so no mighty deeds can be accomplished. The Nazareans in the synagogue are astonished by Jesus' teaching and Jesus is amazed by their lack of faith. Despite all the astonishment and amazement flying around, without faith, mighty deeds cannot be done. 

Does it seem somehow wrong to you to say that Jesus is rendered powerless by those who doubt him? What sort of god can be stripped of his power to perform miracles by a doubting crowd? All this sounds too much like the myths of ancient Greece where the gods were only as powerful as their worshipers' faith. When the followers of Zeus lost their faith, Zeus' power began to fade. If Jesus is truly the Son of the everliving God, then his power comes to him in virtue of who he is not by way of the faithful. What authority do we mere humans have to render him powerless? The answer: none, none whatsoever. Our faith or lack of faith in no way affects God's ability to do what He wills. However, as our loving Father, He wills that we come to Him in love and not by force. He pours out His love, mercy, hope, all that we need to come to Him freely, but we must come freely. He gives us His love. We freely receive His love. And then, His love is a gift. And it is only a gift when we freely receive it. In other words, for mighty deeds to be accomplished in our lives, we must believe in and place our trust in the promises He has made to us as our loving Father. Doubt, fear, worry, any sort of disobedience, tempts us to suspicion and short circuits our faith. How do we cooperate with God's grace while doubting, fearing, worrying about whether or not He loves us and cares for us? 

We don't; we can't. . .cooperate with God's grace, that is, while worrying, etc. If I had to define doubt, fear, and worry, I'd say that these are spiritual anxieties, diseases of the soul bought on by a lack of faith in God, by the absence of the good habit of trusting that God has fulfilled His promises. When we fail to practice a virtue—a good habit—we tend to find ourselves indulging in a vice—a bad habit. What does the vicious habit of failing to trust in God look like? We could point out our sins, our acts of disobedience—the big lie, the small theft, the vicious gossip, the lustful look. We could also point out all the things we have failed to do—a work of mercy, a hurt left unforgiven, a falsehood left unchallenged. We could also point out the absence of blessings in our lives: where are my friends? My family? My loving neighbors? Any one of these or all of them might show us what the vicious habit of unfaithfulness looks like. But these are just symptoms of a more insidious problem, mere indications that something much deeper is profoundly wrong. What lies beneath our sins, our omissions? 

 We are tempted to say, “Well, it's a lack of faith!” OK. But faith itself is a gift, the technical term is “infused virtue.” God infuses in us from the instant of our conception the good habit of trusting in Him. We are gifted with the ability to trust Him even before we are born. So, how do we end up lacking in something that's bonded to our DNA? We don't. We can't. We can no more remove faith from who we are as persons than we can recode our DNA at will to become crawfish or dinosaurs. When Mark notes that Jesus is “amazed at their lack of faith,” he means that Jesus is stunned by their unwillingness to cooperate, to work with the gift of faith that his Father has given to them. Jesus' friends and neighbors have faith as a matter of being human; they are simply unwilling to set aside their pride and work with the seed of trust already planted in their hearts. What lies beneath their stubbornness, urging them toward vicious suspicion, is the Enemy whispering, “You don't need faith; you just need a little sweat and some old-fashioned determination, and you can live your life just as you please. You can have it all on your own. You don't need God. In fact, here's a little secret: you can become a god without God!” That whisper echoes down to us from the Garden and it sounds very much like the hissing of a serpent. 

You can become a god without God. All you need is enough money, enough influence, enough power, enough celebrity, enough freedom from your created nature. . .and voila!. . .you're a god, a being beyond the merely human, beyond the mewling herd. And all this transformation will cost you is your soul and along with you soul goes your personhood, your humanity, and your place in the holy family as an adopted child of God. Why do we sometimes find it so difficult, even repellant, to cooperate with God's gift of faith? Because when we cooperate with His graces, we freely accept that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from Him and we are thus totally and irrevocably dependent on Him. We call that dependence humility—the good habit of knowing that and acting on the truth that we are dust, from our origin to our end, we are dust. BUT! We are dust gifted with the freedom to believe and trust in our Creator. And when we believe and trust in our Creator, mighty deeds are accomplished in His Name and for His greater glory. 

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