11 November 2018

True Sacrifice

NB. A revision of the homily posted below this one. . .

32nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt Carmel Academy, NOLA

Assume for a moment that the story Jesus tells about the Widow and her two mites is not a story about being a cheerful giver but rather a story about prayer. Her two mites aren't coins; they're prayers. She's not dropping coins into the temple treasury but offering her small prayers to God. Why are her prayers better than the prayers of those who pray out of their “surplus wealth”? Jesus tells us, “. . .she, from her poverty, contribute[s] all she ha[s], her whole livelihood.” OK. But why does contributing from her “whole livelihood” make her prayers somehow better? Prayer is a form of sacrifice. We often say that we offer “sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving” to God. We might think that we are “giving something up” when we sacrifice, and there is some truth to this. Parents sacrifice for their children. Priests and religious sacrifice the possibility of having their own children to serve God exclusively. However, true sacrifice is the transformation of the ordinary into the holy; it is to make something or someone holy – set apart – by surrendering the thing or person to God for His exclusive use. Essential to true sacrifice is total surrender, giving your “whole livelihood.”

The Widow's Mite is true sacrifice b/c she is throwing herself fully into the providential care of God. She's not praying out of her leftovers, what's left when she's done with her to-do list, done with her job, done with paying the bills. Those who pray out of their “surplus wealth” are holding back enough – plus just a little more, just in case – holding back enough to make sure that all of their needs are met and then some. Being the good, middle-class Americans that we are, we instinctively understand and sympathize with those who pay the bills, put some in savings, and use a little for fun. . .then give our time and attention to God from what's left over. Prayer becomes for us our charity work, the “extra thing we do if and when there's time.” What does this sort of prayer life do for us and to us? Well, not much. It's better than nothing, I guess. But “better than nothing” isn't what Christ is asking from us. He wants it all. All of us. All of our time, talent, and treasure. He wants everything we have and everything we are 100% of the time. He can make this ridiculous demand precisely b/c he bought us on the Cross. He gave himself – all of his time, talent, and treasure; his body and blood – in sacrifice for us so that we might have life and live it most abundantly. We belong to Christ.

Jesus praises the Widow's sacrifice b/c she puts her livelihood right where it belongs – in the hands of her loving God. She publicly demonstrates her willingness to be a subject of His care, trusting fully that her needs will be met. Her generosity isn't to be measured in terms of “how much money does she give?” but rather in terms of “how much does she trust God to provide?” That's a measure wholly different from what we are used to, wholly different from what many of us would be comfortable with. But that's the measure Jesus praises. That's the measure he's calling us all to use. Total sacrifice. Make everything you have and everything you are holy. . .by surrendering to all to God.
How do we do this? First, God gets His first. In terms of prayer, this means He gets most of our time by being the focus of our time, even when we are working, playing, or resting. Second, our talents and treasures are His before they are anyone else's. In practical terms, this could mean volunteering for the Church before looking for something fun to do. It could mean, giving to the Church before buying a newer model car or upgrading to a better cell phone or taking a vacation. It could mean giving to a charity before paying the bills. Third, if every moment of every day we belong to Christ – and we do – then every moment of every day should be spent doing his work. Teaching the truth, preaching the Good News, helping those in need, healing broken relationships, forgiving sins against us, searching for ways to be a witness to our Father's mercy. And pray, pray, pray for those who most need your prayers – the souls in purgatory; persecuted Christians around the world; mothers contemplating an abortion; first responders and our military men and women and veterans; doctors and nurses; seminarians and religious novices; and most especially those who need your prayers desperately: politicians and the clergy! Trust me: you can't pray for politicians and priests enough.

For those who follow Christ there is no such thing as “surplus wealth.” Whether we talking about our time or talent or our treasure, it all belongs to God first. He gives to us what we need, and the more He gives the more He looks for us to be generous. If you would be wealthy in grace, give out of your “whole livelihood.”

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10 November 2018

The Widow's Prayer

32nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

What if we read the story of the Widow's Mite as a lesson about prayer? We already know the lesson of the widow who gives her last two pennies to the temple. Jesus pretty much tells us the moral of the story outright: the widow has given much, much more than all the wealthy alms-givers b/c the wealthy “have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” Who sacrifices more? Who is made holier in giving away what they have? The Widow, of course. However, what if we think of the two coins she gives to the temple as prayers prayed to God? And what if we think of the thousands and millions of coins given by the wealthy as their prayers to God? The moral of the story doesn't change. Because the Widow prayed all she had to pray in loving sacrifice, her prayers far outweigh the thousands and millions of prayers offered out of surplus by the wealthy. They banked their graces, save them up, and now they expect a dividend, a cash-out. The Widow gives herself totally to prayer. She throws herself completely on the mercy of God's providence. When we pray well, we pray with everything we have, everything we are, holding nothing back for later, trusting (knowing) that God will provide.

So, how does this all work? First, the first beneficiary of prayer is the pray-er, the one praying. Even if you are praying for someone else, you benefit first b/c God's response to your prayer changes you to better receive His gifts. Second, the whole point of prayer is make it possible for you to better receive God's gifts. Our prayers do not and cannot change God. They can and do change us. Third, what we put into prayer is made holy (i.e., sacrificed) and given back to God. If I put nothing more than my surplus time and energy into prayer, then I am making holy only what's left over of my time and energy. I spend most of my time and my energy on me. And then I give the leftovers to God. However, if I put everything I have and everything I am into my prayer, then everything I have and everything I am is made holy in sacrifice. Even one small prayer, prayed with my whole livelihood is worth more than a thousand or a million prayers prayed as leftovers. The logic is inescapable: if I am the first beneficiary of my prayers, and I put everything I have and am into my prayer – no matter how small – then my sacrifice can outweigh the leftovered prayers of millions!

Now, of course, the goal here isn't to Win the Prayer Race, or Out-pray the Spiritually Wealthy. The goal is to improve my prayer life so that I might grow closer to Christ, becoming more and more like him. To be more like Christ we must pray like Christ. And how did Christ pray? Often and intensely. In fact, his whole life was a single prayer, one thirty-three year long prayer of sacrifice. From the moment of his conception in Mary's virginal womb to his ascension into heaven, Christ offered his life and death as an on-going sacrifice. Sure, his sacrifice culminated on the cross, and the effects of his sacrifice exploded out into the world at his resurrection, but every step, every breath, every act he performed while he was among us was a prayer. Everything he had, everything he was – wholly given over to the Father as a witness to His mercy. If we will pray like Christ, in order to become more like him, we will make every step, every breath, every act, thought, word, everything, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, bearing open and courageous witness to the Good News that he lived and died to bring us.

Does this sound like an enormous task to you? Well, it is. . .and it isn't. If you see your work in Christ as a burden or a duty or as something to just get done so you can get on with all the stuff you really want to do, then bearing witness to God's mercy will be an enormous task. You will likely store up your gifts and pray your leftovers. And who's hurt by your Leftover Prayer Life? You are! You might be giving huge amounts of time, treasure, and talent to the Church. . .but still praying out of your leftovers. Thousands could be benefiting from your material generosity. . .but you could be starving to death spiritually b/c you give God your surplus time and energy in prayer. However, if you see your work in Christ as a means of working out your holiness, as a way to grow into his likeness, then bearing witness to the Father's mercy will be anything but a burden; it will be a joy, a bonus. You will immediately give away (sacrifice) your God-given gifts and pray with everything you have and are, and soon find yourself swimming in blessings. Remember: the more you share God's gifts to you, the more gifts He gives you to share. Holiness is polished into us by the act of exchanging of gifts: from God → me → you, from you → me → God, and so on. Each exchange polishes our perfection a little brighter.

When you leave here tonight, take some time to consider your prayer life. Not just which prayers you pray, or how long you spend in prayer. Consider the quality of the time and energy you devote to prayer. Ask yourself: am I like the wealthy who pray a lot out of my leftover time and energy, or am I like the poor widow who prays a little but prays her entire livelihood every time? If your prayer life is dull, rusted, kinda broken down, consider a renovation: for a couple of months limit your prayers to giving God thanks and praise for who and what you already have in your life. Don't ask for anything. Just say “thank you” for what you've got. If you have stopped praying alone with God altogether. . .well, you may now know why nothing is working out for you and why everything seems to be so pointless. Reintroduce yourself to the Father and welcome Him back into your life. Remember: it's not the size or shape of the prayer but what you put into it that tips the scale. The Widow gives everything she has. And everything she has – two small coins – outweighs the alms of millions. She gives her entire livelihood in one prayer. Do you have the courage of the Widow to do likewise?

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01 November 2018

Getting through the Christ-shaped Gate

All Saints
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

To become a saint, you must find the strength to squeeze through the Narrow Gate. To squeeze through the Narrow Gate, you must burn away anything and everything about you that is not of Christ. And to do that, you need Christ and his Church. Those we remember this evening – all the saints in heaven – found the strength, the courage, the perseverance, and the humility to make it to the other side of the Gate. Where did they find all these necessary virtues? In Christ. Through the hard work of burning away anything and everything that is not of Christ. They became Christs for others. But they did not do this work alone. They received the graces God the Father poured out for them and used those graces to show His love at work in the world. Whatever gifts they were given – teaching, preaching, healing; tending the poor and outcast; enduring persecution; bearing witness with their holy lives – whatever gifts they were given were used to announce the abundant mercy of God and to give Him glory. The Gate to heaven is narrow not b/c God wants most of us to go to Hell. . .but b/c that Gate is Christ-shaped. If we hope to enter through it, we too must be shaped by Christ. 
What does being “Christ-shaped” look like? And how do we become like him? John writes, “. . .we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him. . .” He goes on to write, “Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.” Those who entered through the Narrow Gate were pure. Pure in Christ. As pure as Christ. They were – while living among us – purely Christ. Nothing that was not-Christ clung to them in this life. And in death they fit perfectly through the Christ-shaped Gate to heaven. How do we accomplish this? John writes, “. . .whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him; whoever claims to abide in him ought to live [just] as he lived.” Live just as he lived. Preaching God's mercy. Teaching His truth. Healing with His forgiveness of sin. Feeding, clothing, visiting those in need. Pouring ourselves out in sacrificial love so that nothing is left in us but the Christ who gives us the grace to pour. Only then will we be Christ-shaped, fitting perfectly through his heavenly Gate.

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31 October 2018

Don't Be a Heaven Nazi

30th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Contrary to the often-preached pablum that “All People Go To Heaven,” Jesus preaches the possibility of being left behind. Rather than the all-inclusive gospel of therapeutic deism, Christianity acknowledges the fact that God will honor a choice not to join Him at the heavenly wedding feast. This truth rubs against our modernist grain precisely b/c it places the choice of where you will spend your eternal life squarely where it belongs. On you. Not your parents. Not your culture. Not your genetics. On you. And that kind of responsibility harshes the emotional buzz that Doing It My Way is supposed to produce. Maybe it's not exactly pastoral to say so, but truth is truth. And the truth is always pastoral. A corollary to this hard truth is this: I don't get to decide whether or not you go to heaven. That judgment comes when God stares into your soul after death and asks Himself, “Do I see Christ?” Whether or not he sees Christ looking back at Him is up to you. . .while you still live. Jesus tells us that the entrance to Heaven is a Narrow Gate. Some see it as door. Others see a window or maybe a slip-and-slide. Mrs. Turpin sees it as a bridge.

Mrs. Turpin, that paragon of middle-class Caucasian Christianity created by Flannery O'Connor, believes that the social order she occupies is God-made and absolute. As it is here on Earth, so it shall be in Heaven. Meaning that the first – and possibly only – ones through the Narrow Gate will be the respectable, law-abiding, tax-paying, property owning white folks who keep the divine order in order here on the ground. She has a revelation when a acne-plagued girl bounces a sociology textbook off her head, jumps on her chest, strangles her, and yells, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!” After the crazed girl is drugged and restrained by a doctor, Mrs. Turpin returns to her pig farm. There she watches the pigs gather around an old sow, “a red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.” In a moment of odd ecstasy, Mrs. Turpin sees a bridge form, connecting the ground and heaven, and on that bridge, marching straight through the Narrow Gate were all of those people she believed would never make it. The white trash. The Negroes. Freaks and lunatics. And bringing up the rear were Her Kind of People. She watches them process upward, and sees “by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Rather than spend our sparse time imagining who will get through the Narrow Gate and who won't – like Mrs. Turpin, we could carefully consider our own relationship with the Just Judge and his Church. What can I do now to strengthen myself for the trip through the Gate? What can I do now for others to help strengthen them? Well, first, you can't lie to yourself and others by teaching that the Narrow Gate is actually a Celestial Slip-and-Slide. Everyone makes it through! Second, you can't believe that getting through the Gate is about race, class, tribal allegiance, or good intentions. Third, what we call virtue may be nothing more than social convention – cleanliness, ambition, hard work, saving money – these are the “virtues” that crossing into heaven burns away. Lastly, Jesus wants to know where you are from before he opens that Gate. Are you from his Body, the Church? Do you “do it your way,” or his Way? More importantly, did you make yourself the servant of all? The last to be first? That Gate is narrow. To fit through: burn away anything and everything that is not Christ.

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28 October 2018

Every moment of every day, choose Christ!

30th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Whether we realize it or not, every moment of every day, we are choosing a teacher to learn from. Whether we like it or not, every moment of everyday, we are being taught how to think, feel, behave, and live. We will sometimes resist the lessons we are given, and sometimes we will take those lessons in and make them our own, believing that we are choosing what's best from the available options. As we grow older, these lessons accumulate, and we sort through them, tossing some away, giving others more power to influence, and just generally settling into what we might call “our wisdom.” What's missing from this picture is the process of how we choose which lessons to believe and which ones to ignore. If I choose to listen to This Celebrity rather than That One, or That Politician rather than This One, how do I go about the choosing? What criteria do I use to decide? This question becomes all the more urgent when I add in another problem: what if, like Bartimaeus, I am blind? What if I cannot see my choices for what they really are, and find myself choosing my teachers based on dangerous criteria? Before you choose a teacher – every moment of every day – make sure that your blindness is healed.

Think for a moment about the teachers you've chosen. There are the formal teachers – primary, secondary, university teachers. Informal mentors – friends, neighbors, even the occasional stranger. Public teachers – politicians, media personalities, intellectuals, celebrities, writers. Private teachers – people you've chosen as personal examples to follow – saints, popes, clergy, holy lay people. Now, think about why you chose these teachers. Think about what they have in common, what they are teaching you about how to think, feel, behave; how to live day-to-day. Can you see why they are influential in your life? Why you sit at their feet and allow them to shape your life? Maybe they teach you what you believe you need to know to thrive in this world. Perhaps they teach you lessons that make you feel powerful, included, or special. Maybe they teach you what you want to hear. Or maybe your chosen teachers teach you comfortable lessons that never threaten your self-image, never demand anything from you, or push you to grow beyond yourself and your immediate desires. When it comes to choosing who you will follow every moment of every day are you like Bartimaeus, blind and begging? Before you choose, make sure you are saved.

Bartimaeus is saved, physically and spiritually. Jesus fixes his eyes so that he can see. Jesus also fixes Bartimaeus' heart and mind so that he can choose his teacher. It all happens so fast we might've missed it. Jesus does nothing more than declare, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Notice: Jesus tells him to choose. Choose your way. Choose your path. Notice again: Jesus says that Bartimaeus' faith has saved him. Not “your faith has healed you.” But that his faith has saved him. That he is also healed is a bonus. Now that Bartimaeus is saved from his physical and spiritual blindness, he must choose where he will go, whom he will follow. What's his decision? Mark tells us, “Immediately he received his sight and followed [Jesus] on the way.” Bartimaeus chooses Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. From begging blind “along the way” to following Christ, who is The Way, Bartimaeus submits himself to the teacher – the only teacher – who can bring him both sight and insight, both healing and salvation. Every moment of every day, are you choosing to be healed by the only teacher who can bring you to salvation?

If I were to ask you to sit down and draw up a list of all those you listen to every day, could you do it? Could you name all of the teachers who exert influence on you? To the parents here: could you list all of the teachers who influence your children? Not just the school teachers but all of those who have a hand in shaping your child's heart and mind? Do you know what lessons your kids are learning? Do you know how your children are choosing these informal teachers? If not, it might be time to ask Christ to heal your blindness. In fact, it is always time to ask Christ to heal our blindness. We cannot follow Christ if we can't see him. We cannot be Christs for others in this world we don't know his Way. As followers of Christ, he must be our first teacher, our chosen path, our Way and our Truth. Every moment of every day we choose whom we will allow into our hearts and minds to shape who we are. For healing, for salvation, choose Christ!

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22 October 2018

What matters to God

29th Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Paul reminds us that we were once dead in our sins; that we once lived among the disobedient in the desires of the flesh; and that we were all “by nature children of wrath.” Now, we are living, obedient children of God. How? How did we go from being Children of Wrath to Children of God? “For by grace [we] have been saved through faith. . .” By trusting God and receiving His gift of mercy, we are saved. What does our transformation tell us about what matters to God? It tells us that God is merciful. That it is not His will for us that we live in the darkness of sin. That He loves us despite our transgressions. And that He is willing to abandon His justice in order to show us His mercy. What matters to God is that we are brought back to life through His Christ. That we are raised up with Christ and seated at the harvest table for all ages so that “he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace to us. . .” This is what matters to God. Not gold or stock options or trophies. What matters to God is that we see the “immeasurable riches of his grace to us” and that we in turn share these riches with those who have yet to see them. 

Confronted with an opportunity to serve as an arbitrator in an inheritance dispute, Jesus refuses and says to the gathered crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” We can take this to mean that wealth does not make a life. That possessions are as likely to possess as be possessed. Jesus is teaching us that poverty is the better way to holiness, a remedy against the capital sin of greed. But does he mean inherited poverty as in being born into a poor family; or, does he mean evangelical poverty as in choosing to be poor for the sake of the Kingdom? He could mean both! Because poverty – whether inherited or chosen – strips us bare of pretensions, exposes us to self-examination, and submits us to the judgment of the world so that we might be witnesses to the “immeasurable riches of his grace.” For by grace we are saved through faith. If you believe that this is true – that we are saved by grace through faith – how do you show the world and share with the world the riches you have received through Christ?

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21 October 2018

Repent & Hold Fast to the Faith

29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

I've been amazed these last few months at how directly the Sunday Mass readings have addressed the on-going crisis in the Church. It seems that every Sunday we are being given the Word of God as a way of seeing into the diseases that afflict the Body of Christ. Though this is surprising, it really shouldn't be. Scripture is the faithful record of how God's people have struggled through the most basic problems that all of us confront daily. Life, death, illness, accident, natural disaster, loss of faith, betrayal, commitment, war, marriage, children, poverty and riches. Three-thousand years ago or just yesterday, men, women, and children are fundamentally the same. We want to live, thrive, love, and see our families and friends do the same. Our sins haven't changed much either. How we choose against God's will and our own redeemed human nature isn't all that different. That some seek rank and power through corruption and deceit is not new. That others abuse their power and wealth for personal gain isn't new. That a few in the Church live day-to-day to corrupt, undermine, and eventually destroy the Body of Christ isn't new. What is new – what is always new – is the Good News of the Father's mercy to sinners – the reality of forgiveness through the repentance of sin.

More times than I can count I've been asked how ordinary Catholics can hang on to their faith while the Church implodes around them. The author of Hebrews gives us an answer: hold fast to your profession of faith b/c you have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens. In other words, because Christ Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, having risen from the grave and ascended to heaven, grip and hold tight to your trust in the Father's promises. No doubt this is an act of courage! It might even be seen as an act of foolishness. But if it is foolishness to believe firmly in all that the Father has promised, then count me among the fools. Christ Jesus has entered the heavenly temple and there he intercedes for us with the Father. So, with confidence, we can approach the throne of grace and receive His mercy to help us endure the temptation to despair. Nothing done here on Earth can shake Christ's love for us. If we are to follow him, our love must be unshakable, unbroken, and always freely given in service to those who need Christ's love.

The Sons of Zebedee, James and John, show us how NOT to seek to serve the Lord. They ask Jesus for a favored place in the Kingdom. They want recognition. They want power and influence. Wealth and rank. Believing Christ's kingdom to be a worldly kingdom, a kingdom of property, money, slaves, and armies, the Sons of Zebedee see their relationship with the Lord as a golden opportunity to cash in. Despite everything the Lord has said up to this point, despite his persistent teaching about having a faith like a little child, despite his encounter with the rich young man, these two still think that Christ has come to establish a political kingdom in Israel. Jesus sets them straight, again: “. . .whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” We don't know how James and John reacted to this teaching. Did they take it seriously? Did they wink at Jesus and says, “Sure, Jesus, sure. We hear you.” If they didn't believe his words, maybe they believed his actions. He goes willingly to the cross and dies for their sins. That's what it means to be a slave of all – to die a slave's death so that others might live.

How do we do that in our current mess? For the sake of your souls, I urge you to turn your anger, disappointment, despair, and disgust toward holy service. The Devil wants you to dwell on the sins of cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons. He wants you to fill yourself with righteousness indignation. And then, he wants you to stew in those passions until you are ready to say “Enough!” and walk away from the faith forever. What he doesn't want you to do is to turn your legitimate anger and disgust toward repairing the Church. He doesn't want you looking for ways in your parish to empower your prayer life. He doesn't want you going out of your way to offer others the love of Christ they need. And the absolute last thing the Devil wants is for us to spend some time alone with God looking carefully at our own sin and coming to repentance and forgiveness. With our faith firmly in hand, gripped tightly and holding on, we can be absolutely confident that this crisis has a resolution: repent and believe the Gospel! Only then can we as members of the Body of Christ begin to love as we ought and bring about the justice so many need.

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14 October 2018

How to Inherit Eternal Life

28th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Lay Carmelites, MCA

What starts out sounding like a step-by-step multiple ingredient recipe for “getting saved” ends up being a two-step dance between the human person and God. The rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus gives him the answer he's expecting. Follow the Law. A good Jewish answer. The young man says, “Check. Done that.” Jesus says that he must do more. Sell everything you possess. Give the money to the poor. Then follow me. The young man walks away from this multi-step process b/c he's rich. He possesses a lot of stuff. Jesus amazes his disciples when he tells them that rich people will have a difficult time entering the kingdom of God. Why? Why is it difficult for the rich to inherit the kingdom? Jesus doesn't say. Nonetheless, the disciples are exceedingly astonished by this revelation and wonder aloud who then can be saved. Jesus introduces the two-step dance of salvation. Step One: nothing we can do can save us. Step Two: only God Himself can bring us to heaven. Like the young man, we expect there to be a process to salvation, a method or a procedure. Some sort of instructions or script for us to follow. But God alone saves us. And that's been the plan all along.

God offers us His mercy. And we receive Him as grace. This reception of God's mercy as grace is salvific and sanctifying. It saves and makes holy all who receive it. So, the question the young man should've asked is: how do I receive the inheritance of eternal life? Jesus actually answers this question. Remove from yourself – your body and soul – all attachments that prevent you from seeing and hearing the Word of God spoken to you through the Law and the prophets, and through the Word Made Flesh. Attachments to the things of this world interfere with our reception of God's mercy. Salvation is not about “following a procedure” to get the results we want. That's impossible for us. What is possible for us – with God's grace – is to detach ourselves from anything and anyone that prevents us from fully receiving God's mercy for our sin. He has willed from the moment of creation that we return to Him and that we return to Him freely in love. Therefore, to love anything or anyone above God is to attach ourselves to the things of this world. Love God first, then everything and everyone you love becomes a source of grace.


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10 October 2018

Cultural Catholicism is Dead. Good.

The current crisis in the Church proves that Cultural Catholicism is dead. Good. About time.

What sustained the Church – at least in the U.S. – was the cultural habit of “being a Catholic.” Whatever that means in the end, “being Catholic” was simply a matter of dropping into the scripted practices and attitudes of what one's community required in order to be considered a member. No sacrifice required. No surrender. No commitment. And we were told over and over again that we could be good Catholics while dissenting from the fundamentals of the faith. Contraception. Abortion. Same-sex “marriage,” the fatherhood of God Himself.

The rot that set in and metastasized post-VC2 is the result of our Church leaders (clergy and lay theologians) abandoning the apostolic faith in favor of a modernist view of the human person and God that leaves us bereft of any transcendental hope. The human person is a near-infinitely malleable creature defined wholly by the will of individual (Nietzsche), and God is a Cosmic Therapist who affirms us in our choices and rewards us for being “true to ourselves” (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism).

According to this view, we are merely “thinking animals,” looking for acceptance and community. To be accepting and communal is what it means to be pastoral. We are forbidden – by the Modernist Orthodoxy – to question personal choices, evaluate behavior according to objective standards, or in any way note that rational creatures have a designed end in God that requires repentance. What matters is an “open mind” and an “accepting heart” for whatever choices we make.

This is nothing more than an ego-stroking ideology that makes us feel good about our own sin, and inoculates us against the necessity of repentance and the reality of Divine Mercy.

This is NOT the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nor is it the apostolic faith handed on to the Church.

Cultural Catholicism has made us complacent and weak. It has led us to compromise, accommodate, and otherwise adopt the standards of the Age, and we are no longer able to evangelize the world from a position of true humility or love. Without an objective, transcendental referent the Church is nothing more than a charitable relief organization in ecclesiastical drag.

The Son became Man and died on the Cross so that he might reveal in word and deed how God the Father loves us. Not to affirm us in our choices but to point us to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Our true home is the Beatific Vision. And for this reason, God loves us to change us.

The death of Cultural Catholicism is a gift straight from the Holy Spirit!

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07 October 2018

Uncomfortable Truths about Marriage

NB. This is a revision of a 2015 homily. . .

27th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Uncomfortable truths do not go away simply b/c we harden our hearts against them. Reality does not yield to argument or whining. Truth is truth; the Real is real, and we are thrown into both and forced to deal with each as best we can. However, better than most, we Catholics are equipped to confront and thrive in the truth of the real b/c we know and believe that God our Father is Love. He created us in love; redeemed us in love; and He brings us back to Him in love. Our daily reality – given and unavoidable – is soaked through with the abiding presence of Love Himself. Also given and unavoidable. God's presence does not guarantee us that we will never come to harm, or that all of our works will prosper, or that we will always be happy. What His presence does guarantee is everything we do and say is given the weight of eternity when we work and speak in His name for His glory. With our hearts and minds firmly focused on our lives in Christ, we are free to do the holy work we have been given to do. Reality does not yield to argument or whining. Nor does it change b/c we call it something else or b/c secular laws demand that it change. “God made [man] male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” A union of one flesh can never be divided.
This is not how the Pharisees understand marriage. To test Jesus, they ask him, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” The answer to this question is, “Yes, it's lawful.” But Jesus wants to know if divorce is right. At his request, the Pharisees repeat Moses' law on divorce – a simple matter of the husband writing a bill of divorce for his wife. Jesus says to this, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment.” He then quotes Genesis – “two become one flesh” – and concludes, “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Here we have an uncomfortable truth that does not go away simply b/c we harden our hearts against it. Here we have a reality that does not yield to argument or whining, a reality that does not bend b/c we choose to give it a different name. Moses allowed divorce b/c the hearts of men were hardened against the gifts of marriage, hardened to the possibilities to be found in the “mutual gift of self.” Because they would not understand the indissoluble reality of marriage taught in Scripture, Moses gave them a way out. Our Lord knows that though we often fail, we are able – with his grace – to enter the covenant of marriage and thrive.

With the grace of the sacrament and the support of the Church, any marriage can thrive. Notice I did not say “any marriage can be perfect” or “no marriage will ever have problems.” Any marriage can thrive b/c the foundation of marriage is the divine love of Christ for his Church. What obscures or blocks God's love from helping a marriage thrive? In Moses' day it was probably the fact that the wife was more or less the property of the husband. Or the “wife's failure” to produce a male heir. Or some economic difficulty. In our own day, the obstructions are more subtle but no less destructive. Is the marriage kept barren through the use of artificial contraception? Or worse still, abortion? Does the easy availability of no-fault divorce make every disagreement potentially fatal to the marriage? Somehow, we've convinced ourselves that we can alter the reality of marriage by judicial fiat. When marriage can mean whatever we want it to mean, when does it come to mean nothing at all? With technology and gadgets, how much harder is it to avoid the temptations of adultery and fornication? All of these and others can obscure God's love in a marriage, they can. . .but only if the husband and wife forget that God forms the foundation of their union. Only if they forget that marriage is for the stability of the family and the salvation of their souls.

In rejecting Moses' “get out of marriage free” rule, Jesus isn't setting up an impossible rule or trapping couples in hopelessly unhappy marriages. He is pointing us to the hard, unchangeable reality that sacramental marriage is a sign of his love for his bride the Church, a love that cannot change b/c the Church is his flesh – his flesh and blood joined permanently with ours. The baptized cannot be unbaptized. The confirmed cannot be unconfirmed. The ordained cannot be unordained. And the married cannot be unmarried. This is Good News b/c it means that no matter what comes, Christ is with us. He is always with us.

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02 October 2018

Cynicism and Pride

Guardian Angels
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must “turn and become like children.” Jesus says so. So, are we to smear our faces with candy and apple juice, run through the halls in diapers, drop to the floor in random and inexplicable tantrums, and just otherwise behave like inebriated dwarves? If so, then this business of getting into the Kingdom sounds messy and loud. Of course, this isn't what Jesus is telling us we must do. He is telling us that entry into the Kingdom depends on acquiring a child-like innocence and humility, a wide-eyed, trusting sense of wonder at the gift we have received in eternal life. As adults – long suffering in a fallen world – we are less likely to be innocent and humble and more likely to be cynical and prideful. Cynicism and pride are time-tested defenses against the assaults of the Devil. Or so we might believe. The truth is: cynicism and pride are weapons of the Devil, and one of his triumphs is convincing us that world-weariness and arrogance protect us from disappointment and despair. Jesus counters, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”
Humility is the good habit of living constantly in the knowledge that we are totally dependent on God for all things, including our very existence. Aquinas teaches us that humility provides two benefits: “. . .[first], to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately. . .and [second] to strengthen the mind against despair, [urging] it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason” (ST II-II.161.1). That's a Dominican's way of saying that humility teaches us the limits of our gifts and at the same time exhorts us reach the heights of those limits prudently. If humility restrains and strengthens the mind against immoderate pursuits, then pride shoves us toward foolish ambition and jealousy, encouraging us to reach for gifts we have not been given and grasp at great things we are never meant to have. By asking “who is the greatest among us?” the disciples are laying the ground for ambition – “I can become the greatest!” And for jealousy – “Why is he greater than me?” The foolish part of ambition comes when jealousy tempts us to call Evil Good, and we choose to do Evil so that Good may be done. “If I am shrewd and network just right I can become a bishop and clean up this mess of a diocese.” “If I maneuver myself into becoming a formator, I can make sure MY advisees know the REAL Catholic faith!” “If I play the game wisely and become pastor, I can reshape this parish to MY liking.” The folly of ambition is the tragic misuse of one's gifts to puff up one's ego. Accordingly, it's a ticket to Hell.

To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must “turn and become like children.” We must turn away from pride, cynicism, and foolish ambition. Away from the lie that My Way is The Way and if only others would recognize my worthy genius we would all be better off. Innocence and humility lead to holiness through service. Therefore, the innocent and humble priest leads others to holiness through his service to those who need him most. Who is the greatest among us here at NDS? He is the one who least needs to be known as such.

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30 September 2018

We are not here to get along

26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

If given the choice between amputating a limb and losing your immortal soul, ask for a bone saw and get busy! Jesus says, “It is better for you to enter into life maimed than to go into the unquenchable fire of Gehenna with two hands.” Is he being literal, or is he exaggerating? The idea is literal. It is better to go through life without a limb than it is to choose hell for your after-life. But he is also exaggerating; that is, he is not urging us to actually chop off body parts. The point here is that there is nothing worse than living in the here and now without God. . .except, of course, living after death without Him. Since sin is voluntary, the consequences of sin are deliberately chosen. For example, lead a member of God's family into sin and the millstone you will wear to the bottom of the sea is your choice. Does this sound cruel? Unusual? Maybe even a little vindictive? Think about it: by choosing to sin and leading another into sin, you are willfully putting your immortal soul and the soul of another in danger of experiencing first-hand the unquenchable fires of Gehenna. It is far better that Jesus sound somewhat cruel and vindictive than it is for him to soft-pedal the consequences of choosing to live w/o God.

The Good News here is that sin is a choice. Going to Gehenna is a choice. Holiness is a choice. So is the Beatific Vision. Christ on the Cross fulfilled our obligations under the Covenant. And we are free! We are free to receive God's graces. We are free to petition God directly for all that we need. We are free to do good works in His name and for His glory. We are free to find perfection in Christ and – come the end of our days – we are free to enter into His presence and see Him face-to-face. There is nothing stopping you from doing exactly everything you have already vowed to do – except you. When it comes to growing in holiness I am my own worst enemy. And I bet you are yours. We would like to blame our failures on the Devil and the fallen angels. We blame our family members, friends, co-workers, even strangers. But the hard, unyielding truth is this: my sin is my choice. Your sin is your choice. By sinning we are deliberately choosing to deny ourselves the benefits of God's grace and choose instead to “have it our way.” In other words, we are saying to God, “Thanks but no thanks. I've got this. I'll let you know when I need a little help.” And since God loves us and the freedom He won for us through Christ, He honors our choice. He honors our choices even if those choices land us among the burning trash heaps of Gehenna.

James tells us that there is a corrosion in each one of us and among us that will devour our flesh like a fire. He says that this “corrosion will be a testimony against [us].” What is this corrosion? Well, it is many things. It's the love of money and power. Pride crowding out humility. Lust suffocating love. Foolish ambition stepping on humble service. It's jealousy and wrath and deceit. It's everything that Christ is not, everything vile and devious that leads us away from the perfection that God wills for us all. James is specifically castigating the rich who have become rich by cheating the poor. But his admonition to them applies to us as well. When we sin against God's little ones – our brothers and sisters in Christ – we often do so to get an advantage over them, a leg up on them – some way of cheating them out of what is justly theirs. We could think of money or property here. But remember that we can be cheated out of our good name, our reputation. Gossip, detraction, rumor-mongering are all forms of theft and work to corrode the Body of Christ. No earthly treasure gained by lying, cheating, or stealing is worth an eternity w/o God. Better to grow in perfection by witnessing to the truth.

And that's how the Church will survive this century – by witnessing to the truth. We already see the rotten fruit of trying to appease the world, trying to accommodate the Gospel to the spirit of the age. We toned down our talk of sin. We softened our opposition on this or that social issue. We loosened sacramental discipline; blurred doctrines; set “pastoral practice” over against “dogmatic truth.” All in an effort to maintain the fiction that we belong to this world: Look at us! We're just like you! No, we're not. We are not here to get along. We're here to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel. And though we are always in this world, we are never of it. We are heirs to the Kingdom of the Father and our end is His banquet table in heaven. While we are here, we bear witness to the truth, choose to grow in holiness, work toward our perfection in Christ, and never tire of giving testimony to His boundless mercy. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church – the Church that bears witness to the truth.

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23 September 2018

Selfish ambition. Disorder. Every foul practice.

25th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

When I first read the readings for this Mass, I smiled. The Holy Spirit is very much with us still! But as I began to pray over the readings and mull over what I would preach about, my smile turned into a grimace, and I got incredibly uncomfortable. Given the current mess in the Church, we can't hear James' questions w/o squirming just a little. “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” he asks. “Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” We have to blush a bit when we hear James say, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” Jealousy. Selfish ambition. Disorder. Every foul practice. Indeed. And what are we to make of the disciples' silence when Jesus asks them what they are bickering about? Every mom and dad knows that silence. The kids are arguing over something trivial or embarrassing. It is at once comforting and disconcerting that our ancient readings almost perfectly describe our contemporary ecclesiastical tragedy. Fortunately, Jesus gives us – you and me – a way out: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

The disciples go silent when Jesus confronts them about their bickering. Instead of listening carefully to his teaching about his death and resurrection, instead of admitting their fear of and ignorance about their teacher's future, they choose to argue about who's the greatest among them. We know that they know they are doing something foolish b/c. . .well, their embarrassed silence. But why is arguing about who's the greatest a problem? Simply put: ambition is one of the deformed offspring of pride, the deadliest of the deadly sins. Ambition tempts us to seek glory for the sake of glory. It teases us with promises of adulation, respect, and power. It creates in us a festering arrogance that thrives on deceit, theft, abuse, and manipulation. Ambition serves itself first and always, and serves others only when doing so promotes a greater ambition. In the corporate world, we hear the ambitious called “ladder climbers.” In the world of the Church, we say that ambitious clergy have “scarlet fever,” an unhealthy desire for clerical promotion, a desire that runs roughshod over their promise to serve. The disciples are laying out their ambition for all to see. When Jesus sees it, he shows them a child and admonishes them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me. . .”

You don't have to be a theologian to see where some among the clergy went wrong. Ambition for higher office breeds a lust for power and influence. Power and influence breed deceit and manipulation. Deceit and manipulation breed a need to control who knows what and when. And so on and on and on. You end up mired in a morass of trading favors, blackmail, extortion, and trying to silence whistle-blowers. Instead of serving God's people to the limits of their gifts these men chose to serve themselves and their deviant needs, leaving thousands wounded and permanently scarred. And the subsequent cover-ups reveal a whole new layer of ambition – the challenge to “get away with it” and continue on like nothing at all has happened. Jealousy. Selfish ambition. Disorder. Every foul practice. The rot is deep, but it is not deeper than the reach of God's grace. The scandal casts a huge shadow over the Church. But no shadow survives direct sunlight. Ambition is a subspecies of Pride and the antidote to Pride is humility – yours, mine, ours together as a witness to the might of God's justice and His mercy.

The most common question I get about this mess is: “Father, what can the laity do?” Some want to withhold donations. Write letters. Protest outside bishops' residences. I remind them that this is a spiritual war not a political campaign. Spiritual wars are fought with spiritual weapons: prayer and fasting. Growth in holiness. Cultivating personal humility to oppose pride. Service to others in the name of Christ. Worthy reception of the sacraments. Spiritual wars are fought on many levels all at once: the cosmic level, the national level, the diocesan and the parochial, and especially, the personal level. When was your last visit to the confessional? Are you reading your Bible? Praying the rosary? Fasting when you can? Doing good works for the greater glory of God? Are you nurturing self-righteous anger? A desire for vengeance? You are a member of the Body of Christ, and the spiritual health of Christ's Body is measured by the spiritual health of her members. What you can do for the Church is to get well spiritually. Be a shining witness to the world of exactly how powerful God's mercy really is. You can – through your prayer and witness – stand against the darkness that threatens to overwhelm many of our brothers and sisters in the Church. Receive them as children of the Father. . .and receive Christ in turn. 
Our problems are far from over. And the Enemy is looking to recruit complacent, despairing Catholics who can't see a way out. The way out of this mess is to follow Christ. To Jerusalem and to the Cross. Yes, there will be suffering and pain, but the Truth will set us free.

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16 September 2018

Choose to Follow Christ!

24th Sun OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

There's no way out of this. I'm sorry. But there isn't. Peter tries to get out of it. And Jesus calls him “Satan.” I mean, we can get out of it – get out of having to deny ourselves; out of picking up our crosses – we can. But if I choose to avoid the painful parts of following Christ, I will save my life now only to lose it later. . .and forever. When Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter correctly answers, “You are the Christ.” Jesus isn't playing a trivia game. He's not giving Peter a pop-quiz to check his reading comprehension. Jesus is asking Peter – the Rock – to choose his path, to choose the Way he will live and die and live again. Peter chooses correctly. . .at first. After Jesus prophesies about how he will suffer and die at the hands of his enemies, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Mark doesn't tell us why Peter does this, but we can imagine. Peter loves Jesus. He doesn't want to believe that the Christ, the promised Messiah will be tortured and executed by those who hate him. Fair enough. But Jesus rebukes Peter in turn, naming him “Satan” – accuser, betrayer, enemy. Like many of us at different points in our lives, Peter is happy about the idea of Christ but not so happy about actually following Christ. . .following him all the way to the Cross.

So, which will be it for you: the idea of Christ, or actually following Christ? What's the difference? Choosing the idea of Christ means thinking good thoughts about Jesus. Being content with the occasional trip to church. Maybe wearing a cross or a crucifix. Hanging a framed picture of the Sacred Heart in my home. Choosing the idea of Christ might mean I can recite a couple standard Catholic prayers – “Our Father,” “Hail Mary.” It means having a generalized sense of myself as someone who identifies as a Christian. . .as opposed to identifying myself as a Buddhist or a Muslim or an atheist. The idea of Christ doesn't really change that much about how I live my daily life; how I treat my family, my friends, my co-workers. It doesn't influence my moral choices, or in any way disturb my material comfort. In other words, by choosing the idea of Christ I can easily slide into the flow of the world without stirring up any opposition; without being seen as a problem for others. I can pass as a good citizen of this world while thinking of myself as a worthy member of Team Jesus, hoping that I'm never sent it to actually play. Choosing the idea of Christ means privacy, anonymity; a life without sacrifice.

Choosing to actually follow Christ is quite different. As Peter and the other apostles soon discover. It was the idea of Christ that moved Peter to rebuke Jesus. To deny him three times in the Garden. It was actually following Christ that put Peter on a cross in Rome, crucified upside down. Following Christ means denying myself. It means taking myself out of the center of life, replacing me with Christ. It means setting aside my wants, my preferences, my “felt needs.” It means removing from my heart and mind the choices the world has made for me and putting on the heart and mind of Christ – the heart and mind of sacrificial love. Following Christ means becoming alter Christus, another Christ. It means picking up my cross – the instrument of my suffering and death – and carrying it with me. Not as a reminder or a punishment. But as a source of strength and perseverance. While the idea of Christ leaves me to live in comfortable silence, following Christ compels me to teach and preach the Truth of the Good News. I am moved at the core of my being to shout about the Father's mercy to sinners. To tell the world about the new life He has given me. Following Christ is public, prominent; it is a life of sacrificial love.

The Church – the Body of Christ, you and me – the Church during these dark days of scandal and public ridicule must double and triple-down on following Christ. The desire to hide out and keep quiet in the face of media attention is understandable. But if there was ever a time for the followers of Christ to be publicly recognizable as such, publicly committed to the Gospel, it is now. St. James tells us that our faith is empty if we do not put that faith to work. If your faith is a vague notion floating around harmlessly in your head, now is the time to grab it and relocate it to your hands and feet and your tongue. Put your faith to work, following Christ, getting behind him and doing what he did, speaking out about the mercy you've been given; teaching others about the freedom you've received from your Heavenly Father. The Church as an institution that chooses the idea of Christ is dead. It always has been and always will be. The Church follows Christ. The Church – the Body of Christ – denies herself, picks up her Cross, and follows Christ. Do not leave yourself behind. Choose to follow Christ!

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