09 December 2018

Preparing the Way of the Lord

2nd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Lent reminds us that we are anointed priests – sacrificing, interceding, sanctifying. Ordinary Time reminds us that we are anointed kings – ruling by serving, ransoming ourselves for others. Advent – especially the 2nd Sunday of Advent – pushes us to remember that we are anointed prophets of the Lord. We are reminded that, like John the Baptist, it is our mission to “prepare the way of the Lord, [to] make straight his paths.” Our mission as prophets begins with baptism and continues uninterrupted day-to-day until we are called home. Paul writes, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it. . .” So, we do the good work of preparing the way of the Lord in this world “until the day of Christ Jesus.”
What does “being a prophet” look like in 2018? Look to John the Baptist. He comes out of the desert, a desolate place, a place devoid of life. He finds his voice there. Outside family, friends, culture, and civilization, John finds a voice to proclaim the Coming Christ. He doesn’t use this voice to promote himself. He speaks of Another. He doesn’t prepare the way for his own celebrity. He celebrates Christ. He doesn’t try to make his own life easier by claiming some sort of divine connection. He makes the paths straight for the Lord. He doesn’t try to “fit in” or blend in. He preaches against the cultural grain, against the dominant powers of the world. He is not concerned about being comfortable with his role or finding satisfaction in his ministry or being a team player. His is a lonely voice. He does not coddle the establishment or the revolutionaries, the elite or those who claim to speak for the oppressed. He calls them all – every one – to repentance, to baptism, and to a life of good fruits. He points again and again to Christ, the mightier One, the One Who Comes to baptize in the Spirit. Always pointing toward Christ, always toward Jesus. And he dies without regret, refusing to compromise, refusing to speak a lie just “to get along.” That is what a prophet does. Two thousand years ago, last week, today, and tomorrow.

Now, if all that sounds like I'm pushing you to become soldiers in the culture war that's currently consuming western civilization, I'm not. I'm not saying that to be a prophet of Christ you must don hair-shirts and march about, protesting this or that cultural abomination; or fling yourself at public sinners, or stand on street corners with poster board signs that read, “REPENT! THE END IS NEAR!” In fact, most of that kind of behavior damages the credibility of our faith, making the Church look like some kind of doomsday cult. Pope Benedict XVI likened the contemporary Church to the Church as she existed in first two-hundred years after the resurrection – out of favor with the dominant class; politically weak; crippled by internal conflicts and scandal; floundering in her efforts to evangelize; and attacked from all sides by paganism, worldliness, and government suspicion. This is when he noted that the Church of the future would be smaller and more faithful. As the dominant culture withdraws its favor from the faith, those in the Church who no longer see any social advantage to belonging to the Church will leave. What's left will be those who truly believe. The Church the martyrs' died to nourish.
I believe we are seeing this papal prophecy come to pass in our lifetimes. How do we respond if we choose to remain faithful? First, we hold firmly in our hearts and minds the message of Advent: Christ has come; Christ will come again. We wait patiently for his coming at Christmas, learning how to wait patiently for his Second Coming at the end of the age. Second, while we wait, we grow in holiness by faithfully attending to the sacraments; praying daily; completing works of mercy; being vibrant witnesses for Christ in our schools, workplaces, and homes. This doesn't mean shouting at sinners, throwing Bibles at the heathens, or forcing others to endure our religiosity. It means speaking and behaving like Christ wherever we are. It means never compromising the faith for popularity. Never accommodating the world for mere convenience. Third, and here's where my Dominican training comes to bear, how well do you know your faith? Do you study scripture? The Church Fathers? Do you own a copy of the Catechism? If so, do you read it? Do you know something of the Church's 2,000 year old history? If pressed, can you explain to your children, grandchildren, your neighbors why the Church teaches against abortion, artificial contraception, same-sex “marriage,” and encourages us to help the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized? And lastly, remaining faithful in these turbulent times requires that we have a clear, unsentimental view of the Church herself. She is always one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The men and women who manage her earthly affairs are sometimes none of these. There will be times – and we are in one right now – where the Church herself must be confronted by her own prophets. This too is part of the difficult reduction our future holds.
So, after all that, are you ready to be a prophet? You are ready to be a prophet if you are ready to acknowledge your sin. Repent. Turn around. Face God. Produce good fruit first and then expect it from others. You are ready if you can call out injustice; condemn oppression; defend the weak and helpless; stand firm on God's Word, preaching and teaching His truth w/o compromise or accommodation. We are ready if we can live waiting on the Lord, at peace while proclaiming with our every word and every deed: “Prepare! Christ is coming”

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08 December 2018

A Most Dangerous Greeting

NB. Adapted from a 2006 homily preached at Madonna Hall, Univ. of Dallas.

Immaculate Conception
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt. Carmel Academy, NOLA

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” What sort of greeting is this? A dangerous one, a very dangerous one. The angel Gabriel, sent by God to Mary, greets the virgin by telling her that she is most graced, wholly blessed, chosen, and attended to by the Lord. And Mary knows the greeting is dangerous: “But she was greatly troubled…” Troubled…and wise. Mary pondered the angelic greeting with dread. She understood that this particular, unique grace picked her out of all God’s creatures. She understood that receiving an angel from the Lord meant a mission, a purpose beyond her mortal end, a life for her of singular graces, an honored life of doing the Father’s will for His glory. Dangerous indeed!

Mary is being asked by the Lord to serve as bearer of the world’s salvation, the vessel of the Word, and the Mother of a redeemed nation. Saying yes to this places her at that moment in time, that instant of human history where the Divine takes on flesh, sets out toward selfless sacrifice, and heals us all. In her ministry to all creation, the virgin gives her body, her will for the rest of us so that the Infinite Word might speak Itself as a Finite Word and gather us together into a single heart, a single mind, one voice in witness to the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord. She is the mother of our salvation, the perfected vessel of our eternal healing. Mary is a preacher of the gospel, the first preacher of the Word – the most dangerous job there is in this world.
When we took on the responsibility of bearing the Word to the world – when we became preachers of grace – we took on the dangers of opposing all that the world worships as good. Speaking the Word of Truth against the Lie riles up the worst resentments and the most violent frustrations of those in the world who resent Mary’s Yes, who resent the gift of the Christ Child, and who turn their faces against his invitation to participate in the Divine Life. The danger for us here is twofold: 1) that we are punished as the source of the resentment and frustration among those who reject the Word and 2) that we succumb to the temptation to see these people as hopeless, beyond reach, and deserving of temporal punishment. The first – that we are blamed – is common enough in history and even now. The second – our judgment of others – is scandalously common and unworthy of the virgin-child who made our own Yes possible.
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is first a celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God as man. Mary’s dangerous Yes to God prepares the way of the Lord, make possible his advent in creation, and establishes her as the first preacher of the Word. Her clean conception in the womb of her mother points us unerringly to God’s mercy, unerringly to God’s invitation to bear His Word to the world with unyielding charity, steely will, and the mercy of truth.
We can meet the dangers of violent opposition and avoid the dangers of judging others by submitting ourselves in both cases to the ministry of the handmaid: “Lord, let your will be done in me according to your Word.”

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05 December 2018

With the Devil in the Desert

NB. A recent discussion in one of my homiletics classes prompts me to repost this 2006 effort. . .

1st Sunday of Lent 2006: Gen 9.8-15; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.12-15
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

I find him sitting with his back against a rock, staring at the heat waving above the dry-cracked river bed. He smells of hot cedar smoke, burnt bees’ wax, and drying sweat. When my shadow touches his bare feet, he moves them away and turns as if to look at me, then stops and stares again at the blistering sand. I wave my hand to greet him, my shadow again touching his feet and legs. This time he doesn’t move. It’s always the same with him. He knows I’m here. Right here with him. But he stubbornly ignores me or moves away at my dark touch. I take a deep breath, gather my silk robes around my legs to sit, and as I fall into place in front of him, he sighs and begins to pray aloud. Scratchy, mumbling nonsense. Groveling little bits of spontaneous poetry and half-remembered words and phrases stolen from thin, crumbling scrolls. I just listen and wait. Most days we sit together in silence like this, waiting on one another.

When the sun touches the tallest mountain, he stops muttering. The dry burn of the desert wind eases a bit. There’s a promise of wet air, of moisture from somewhere out of the north. I clear my throat. I see a small smile on his lips. Just as I open my mouth to argue again, wild beasts begin to gather near us. This happens every night about this time. And I am surprised again, always surprised, by the fierce brilliance of the crown of angels that seems to float miles away behind his head. Tensed to fight, they just hold there radiating His glory—a sky crowded with angelic mirrors flashing His beauty. How very servile of them to pose so. How very grand it all is. A perfect waste of power.

I catch him watching me watch his ministers. You see, he knows that I know that he won’t call them. He could. No doubt. But he won’t. It’s a matter to pride with him. That’s my secret weapon: his pride. He’s the favored Son. I’m the fallen Daystar. He’s the Anointed One. I’m the Marked One. He is Righteousness and I am Rebellion. And I’m here, again, to show him the error of his Way, to offer him something far better than a life wasted on dumb humility, unrequited love, and pointless sacrifice. I am here to tempt him away from his self-destructive path, away from the terrible, bloody death that those dirty little apes he loves so much will give him. I will show him riches, power, and his own pride. I will tempt him to resist me on his own, without those shiny angels coming to his rescue!

I gather myself for the show, for the theatre of the absurd that will surely wake him up to his desperate folly. But before I can collect myself fully, he starts to chuckle. Just a small laugh at first. Then he burst out with a deep guffaw! A belly laugh from the Son of God. I just stare at him. Surely the heat has driven him mad. He stops. And he opens his eyes, looking at me, through me, right to the center of the goodness that is my very existence. I fumble for an excuse, some reason to protest the invasion of my privacy, but I can only stare back at the fullness of beauty, goodness, and truth that He Is.

Without moving he says, “Perdition, you are here again to lie to me, to put between me and our Father a temptation. Do it then.” I swallow hard and plead, “My Lord, can’t you see that the course laid out for you is disastrous? Can’t you see the possibilities for us, the potential of our rule if you would turn to me for help? Can’t you see your ignominious end? The scandal of it!” He chuckles again, “You are worried about scandal? Try another one, Deceiver. Put yourself behind me so that I may go forward. You are dust and wind.” He gently waves his hand toward the cooling desert. I grow angry at his dismissal, “Wow! You really are stupidity itself, aren’t you. Wasted power, wasted opportunities.”

I sputter for a while longer, hoping that my indignity at his rudeness will move him to talk to me again. Nothing. I conjure images of wealth—jewels, fine horses, palaces. Nothing. I conjure images of power—a throne for the worlds, slaves, armies. Nothing. Finally, I conjure images of personal dignity—his freedom from the trails ahead, the esteem of his rabbinical colleagues, the love of the crowds cheering him. Nothing. Again, nothing.

I gird my silk robes, bracing myself for one final assault on this mulish Nazarene. I shout at him: “You’re proud! It’s pride that makes you think you are better than my gifts, too good to pick up what I give you. Pride!” He shifts his feet under him, rises to stand before me. He looks over my head as if reading a text behind me, “You are nothing, brother. Shapes, shadows, quick glimpses, and shallow sighs.” My indignity is unmatchable! “I am Lucifer, Morning Light! I am First Chosen of the Angels! I know who I am!” His eyes move to focus on mine. He squints against a finally setting sun, “I will teach you who you are. Fallen creature. Sinner. Liar. Killer of Hope. Tempter. I know your true names: Perdition. Chaos. Betrayal. You cannot win with me because I am driven here by the Spirit of our Father to fast and pray and to prepare myself for what I am about.”

Panicked, I reach for what I have, anything at all, and say, “They won’t love you for your sacrifice, you know? They will not come to you after you are betrayed and convicted, and sent into the dead ground. They will deny you. They will run and hide and waste time pointing fingers and accusing one another. I will make sure that they forget you.” If anything he looked calmer, “Yes, I suppose you will. But they like me will have their forty days in the desert, their time and place apart to burn away the excess, to trim the burdensome and ridiculous, to pray and serve, and to remember that they are dust—dust given life by our Father’s breath and made holy in His love for them.”

What arrogance! The man is insane. I have to ask, “You came into this dead waste to pray and serve and to remember that you are dust? You? The favored Son? The Messiah? You fled to this place? Why? Why would you do such a stupid thing?” Again, he smiles slightly at me, at my vehemence, and says, “I will teach you again, Satan. I am in this desert for forty days to remember the journey of Moses and his people out of slavery. I am in this desert for forty days to teach those to come how to live with our Father. I am here to survive with Him alone, to live stripped of pretense, theatre, guile, and luxurious want. I am here so that those whom you will tempt tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will know that they need only to call upon the Father’s mercy, to repent, believe the gospel, and then know that they are free of you forever.” His eyes blaze for a moment, then calm again.

I give up! My time with him is up anyway. My time with him is wasted breath. You, you however, well, you’re just beginning, aren’t you? What, day five or six, now, of the forty? Come, let me show you to my favorite rock and the riches I can offer you. Let me show you my toys, my little inventions, and help you choose a Way more to my…I mean…your liking.

So tell me, little ones, what tempts you?

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02 December 2018

Yes, I'm an Advent Nazi

1st Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

This time of year, my family and friends call me The Grinch. The seminarians will call me Scrooge. I'm not grouchier or any more mean-spirited right before Christmas. . .I just happen to enjoy Advent, and I want us all to anticipate the Lord's birth at Christmas. I want us to truly wait for him, not rush head-long into the gift-grubbing and cheap marketing tricks. So, I'm not the Grinch nor am I Scrooge. I prefer the term “Advent Nazi.” No Christmas decorations before Dec. 24th. No tree, no bells, no gift-wrapping, no Santas! No hymns about Baby Jesus – “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” “Away in the Manger.” None of that! I don't even want to see the colors red, green, and white in close proximity before the vigil Mass on the 24th. Advent colors are purple, purple, rose, and purple. In that order. Oh, and while I'm ranting, Christmas concludes with the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th not December 26th. Why is all this important? Because I am convinced that we have lost the art of waiting, the fine art of anticipation. We no longer know how to “look forward to” anything, so we are constantly made anxious by what's coming.
Or, in the case of Advent, we are made anxious about who's coming. We can't avoid the fact that Luke's gospel description of the Lord's coming has a strong sense of foreboding about it, “. . .nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world. . .” We know that the Lord has been born. And we celebrate his birth every year at Christmas. But we also know that he will come again. We just don't know when. The idea here is to warn us, to get us ready for an event that we know is coming, but we don't know when it's coming. That tension btw knowing and not-knowing can make us anxious. Unless! Unless, we have properly waited; that is, unless we truly anticipate this coming event. How do we properly wait, truly anticipate? One way is to set aside a time every year during which we emphasize the expectation of his second arrival, during which we sing and pray and read about him coming among soon as a child. Advent prepares us for his second coming (date unknown) by teaching us to wait for his birth (Dec 25th). If we will not celebrate Advent properly, we will not be ready for his coming again.

So, why do we start celebrating Christmas the day after Halloween? Lots of reasons. Most of them have to do with worshiping the demon, Mammon. Money. Sales. Profit-margins. Staying in the black. Consumerism. But I think there's an even deeper, spiritual explanation for our rush: living with anticipation feels like deprivation. Waiting patiently feels like we are “put upon,” made to feel unimportant or small. I want what I want and I want now! If I don't get what I want right-this-second, then I am being deprived of something I need. I'm being denied, refused! What used to be eagerness becomes impatient entitlement. What used to be genuine joy, waiting for the coming of Christ, becomes bored cynicism. Jesus says of his coming again, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” “That day” – his coming again – can catch us by surprise and trap us only if we have forgotten how to wait, forgotten how to expect and anticipate. We can be prepared to welcome the Christ Child at Christmas AND Christ the Just Judge at his coming again by properly celebrating Advent, by paying careful attention to the traditions of this season.

If we do this, if we are “vigilant at all times and pray that [we] have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent,” Christ's second coming will be no surprise to us. If we allow the Advent season to teach us how to be patient, we will “see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” and we will not be anxious or afraid. Every year I watch videos of Black Friday shoppers mauling each other for Christmas deals – cheap TV's and limited edition toys. And every year I imagine that I can hear the demon, Mammon, laughing at his own worshipers. How many of those people elbowing each other in the face for a on-sale blender will patiently wait for the birth of the Christ Child? Do they believe that Walmart sales and coupons will help them when the Just Judge returns? I don't know. But I do know God the Father fulfilled His promise to send us His Son in the flesh. And I know that He will fulfill His promise to send us His Son again in judgment. If you know the first, then believe the second, and wait. Wait ready. Wait patiently. Wait as if your eternal life depends on it.

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25 November 2018

We cannot belong to this world

Christ the King
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Every year on this solemnity I ask you (and myself) the same question: who or what sits on the throne of your heart? Who or what rules your life, my life? You might think that a priest and Dominican friar wouldn't need to ask himself this question, but you'd be wrong. It's a question that needs asking every day, every hour of the day by every man and woman who claims to follow Christ. Who rules me today? Who will rule me in the next hour and the next? We get to choose. And who or what we choose to rule us defines us, tells us who we are and where we are going. As men and women vowed under baptism and bound together in the Holy Eucharist there is only one answer to the question of who rules us: Christus Rex! Christ the King! And you know and I know that b/c we are not yet the saints we were made to be – loudly proclaiming Christ as our King and living under his rule as subjects are two very different things. Shouting to him “Lord, Lord!” may feel like enough to get by, but to be ruled, to be weighed and measured by his Word and Deeds, well, that's something else entirely. Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” And if we are to be subject to his rule, neither can we belong to this world.

So, what does it mean not to belong to this world? What does it mean – right here and now – to belong to God's Kingdom? At the very least it means that we live for another kingdom, another citizenship that transcends the powers of this world. It means that we look far and beyond the daily cares of being in the world and see these cares in the light of another Kingdom that far surpasses this one in glory and splendor. It means that all we do and say are judged against the perfection of God's final end for us, His Kingdom of Heaven. It's not that all we do and say here and now is useless but that we bear up under the obligation to bear witness to His perfection while we are here. What does it matter if we are rich and beautiful and successful and talented, and die without Christ? All that wealth and beauty and success and talent goes into the grave with us. It is wasted on a six-by-three foot hole in the ground. Never to rise. Lost to the tides of time and rotting in place. But if we place Christ on the throne of our hearts, if we put him over us to rule, then our God-given gifts will bear infinite fruit, eternal rewards. You are created and recreated to be vessels of Christ, carrying his Word and Deed into the world to bring his sacrifice of mercy to sinners.

Our question this evening – who sits on the throne of your heart? – isn't a rhetorical question. It's not just a way to start a homily. It's a deeply serious question and demands an answer. Right now, in 2018 America, you and I are being called out by the world. We are put against a wall and ordered to choose. Serve Christ or serve Mammon. This sounds a bit overwrought, I know. But it is nonetheless true. In centuries past, our ancestors in faith were ordered to choose Christ or the Roman Emperor. Choose Christ or the King. Choose Christ or the State. Choose Christ or Capitalism or Socialism or Relativism or the Mob or Ideology or Being on the Right Side of History. The choice is always the same for us. Choose Christ or choose something or someone else – Diocletian, Cromwell, Napoleon, Mao, Hitler, Republican, Democrat. Whatever. Fill in the blank. Blindfold in place, hands tied, back against the wall, gun to your head – who sits on the throne of your heart? Who rules you? You don't have to tell me. I'm as obligated as you are to answer the question. Christ the King wants to know. He's not interested in punishing us. We're free to choose. But our choice defines us. Are you a Christ in the world for others? When Christ the Just Judge stares through you on Judgment Day will he see himself in you?
Talking about the stark opposition btw Christ and the world may make you uncomfortable. A little nervous. That's understandable. We've become accustomed to accommodation and compromise with the powers of the world. Many in the Church – clergy and laity alike – have traded their right and responsibility to bear truthful witness for the temporary comforts and glories of position and power. This is nothing new. Judas was the first. But he wasn't the last. Even now, we are living through a betrayal of Christ – the scandals consuming the Church. We can plainly see what happens when the followers of Christ place the things of this world on the throne of their hearts: deception, secrecy, corruption, and treachery. How do we recover? A new policy? A new procedure? Some new committee made up of perfect human beings? No. We re-enthrone Christ in our hearts and recommit ourselves to preaching, teaching, and living the Truth of his Word – the Whole Truth, not just the parts that get applause from the world but everything he has taught us. We must rededicate ourselves to becoming Christs for others.
We do this by turning again to Scripture and Tradition. What does Jesus say and do in the Gospels? What has the Church taught since her founding at Pentecost 2,000 years ago? What wisdom have the great saints and doctors of the Church given us? The Early Fathers? The medieval mystics and theologians? The bloody witness of our Body's martyrs? What about the practical wisdom of Christian family life we've received from our mothers and fathers? The practical holiness of our monks and nuns? We can reorient and rededicate ourselves to Christ by placing ourselves squarely and forthrightly upon the foundation stone of the Church – “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” If Christ rules your heart, you listen to his voice. You hear his truth. And you are unafraid to proclaim, “The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty!”

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18 November 2018

What is Jesus waiting for anyway?

33rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Watching the news these days, I can't help but hear behind reports of war, riots, famine, & economic collapse, the rhythm of Yeats, reading his visionary poem, “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats wrote this in 1919. Just one year after 16 million soldiers are killed in WWI. And just 13 years before a former corporal in the Austrian army is appointed Chancellor in Germany. His reign will end in 1945 with the deaths of more than 70 million in WWII. Yeats, again: “Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand./The Second Coming!” Jesus assures his disciples that he will come again. He came to us first as a Child, and he will come next as Judge and King. When? “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So, as we prepare to wait for his birth in Bethlehem, we wait for his coming again in glory.

No, it's not yet Advent. But we celebrate another sort of Advent this evening, a Second Advent. Jesus warns his disciples that after his death, “False messiahs and false prophets will arise and will perform signs and wonders in order to mislead. . .the elect. Be watchful!” And despite this warning, many of his disciples through the centuries have been misled. Some by a Roman emperor. Others by Greek heresies. Many by charismatic monks and holy women. Millions were led astray by clever theological argument. And millions more by atheistic science, utopian fantasies, murderous political ideologies, and the temporary treasures of Mammon. How many have been duped by New Age gibberish, or 21st century humanism? Jesus calls this long, painful falling away from the apostolic faith, a tribulation; that is, the threshing of a harvest to separate the wheat from the chaff, to separate those who are strong in the faith from those who practice an easy, convenient faith.

After this centuries-long tribulation, he says, “. . .the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky. . .” And as nature convulses, we “will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' with great power and glory. . .” His angels will “gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.” Jesus answers his disciples' unspoken question: “When [the fig tree's] branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the gates.” When is the Christ coming again? When will the Son of Man be near the gates? When we see the sun and moon eclipsed and stars shooting through the sky. He will come again when “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” In other words, he is always prepared to come again, so we must always be ready to receive him. When “the best lack all conviction,” and “the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” his Church must be passionately convinced of her faith, waiting for his arrival with a burning hope.

Obscure apocalyptic passages like this one from Mark serve a specific purpose in the life of the Church. Rather than tempting us with the useless task of figuring out the hour and day of Christ's return, these passages urge us to hold firm in the faith and live with the hope that Christ's resurrection promises. Rather than scaring us silly with tales of the imminent destruction of the world and threats of eternal damnation, these passages report events that have already taken place in history; or events that are occurring at the time the passage was written; or events that recur in history over and over again. Their purpose is to reassure us that there is nothing particularly unusual about the social, economic, religious turmoil that we are living through. Has there been a century in 5,000 yrs of human history w/o a solar or lunar eclipse, a meteor shower? A decade w/o by war, plague, poverty, or natural disaster? We don't need to know when Christ will return. All we need to know is that he will, and that our task is to be ready: free from all anxiety, utterly at peace – we wait. But are we ready?

We might wonder: what’s Jesus waiting for? Surely the world cannot be a bigger mess; surely we cannot become more self-destructive, angrier, greedier, more hostile to peace and the poor! Can the world's political upheavals get any worse? Can we really survive any more natural disasters? Things seem to be falling apart and the center isn't holding. What's Christ waiting for? He’s waiting on you. On me. On all of us. He waiting for us and our repentance. Before the angels are sent to collect the elect from the four corners of the Earth, Christ gives us every chance to repent and return to him. He says to us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” His words are: repent, believe the Gospel, and join my Father and me at the Wedding Feast.

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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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