18 August 2019

We don't need no Therapist Jesus!

20th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

This is NOT the Comfortable Middle-Class Jesus of the modern Church. The mild-mannered Jesus of our therapeutic culture. The peace-nik-hipster Jesus of the fashionable fringe. The tolerant, diversity-loving, social worker who never judges, never demands. Nope. The Jesus we hear tonight is the Jesus born and bred into an ancient prophetic tradition that requires its hearers to take sides, to make choices, to hunker down and endure the consequences of those choices. Come what may. There's no parsing-away his words here so that we can re-establish our image of a bland Messiah who only wants us to be nice to one another. He says what he says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” This is the part of the homily where most preachers will tell you what he Really Means here. The part where they will bleach out all the color, wring out all the vigor, and iron away any inconvenient wrinkles lest you experience a single moment of discomfort or challenge. But we know our history, and we know that following Christ means creating division and setting the world on fire!

The very last thing the Church needs right now is a Bureaucrat Jesus; a Therapist Jesus. Nor do we need a Lawyer Jesus or a Cop Jesus. Looking at the state of the Church and the trajectory some have chosen for her, I believe that what the Church needs is a Prophet Jesus – a Jesus that can and will call to his Body, the Church, to a radical holiness, a fundamental set-apartness that allows us to understand ourselves as Christs-in-progress. Not just Mass-goers or members of a parish. But as men and women who have been truly and thoroughly purified in the fires of divine love and set upon the path toward glory. If you are on this path, if you are indeed purified in the fires of divine love, then your daily life should be a life of division, conflict, and even warfare with the world around you. I don't mean that you should be violent, or behave like a jerk at the office, or be offensive to those you meet. I mean that everything you are should rebel instinctively against the reach and grasp of a world that's trying to seduce you, to draw you into its dark network of Christ-denying philosophies and practices. The battleground is your immortal soul. And though Christ has already won this war on the cross, we must remain in him to share his victory.

So, you might ask: How do I remain in Christ? Well, Therapist Jesus will ask you how the challenges of holiness make you feel, and affirm you in your OK-ness. Cop Jesus will want to know if you're following the Law, and he'll remind you that he's always watching for infractions. Bureaucrat Jesus will tell you that holiness is a procedure, requiring assessment, feedback, and accreditation. But Prophet Jesus will answer your question with a question: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?” And while you're floundering around for an answer, he'll shout, “NO! I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” Then you will know that to remain in Christ is to be burned by the world, to be rejected, and turned away b/c you refuse to hide the divine love you carry, b/c you will not fail in bearing witness to the purification that freed you and frees you from sin and death. To remain in Christ, to share in his victory on the cross is to make your life – every part of your life – a rebuke of the world, a challenge to the death-loving culture that boils around us. And that is why we carry conflict, division, and even warfare with us everywhere we go. Not b/c we are angry or violent. . .but b/c we belong to Christ.

I will say again what I have said to you many times over the past seven years: being a follower of Christ is about becoming Christ in the world. It's not about feeling a certain way about God; or filling out the correct paperwork in the correct way; or following all the rules and keeping your nose clean; or being nice to your annoying neighbors. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not suffer torture and death on the cross to show us how to be good, upstanding, middle-class taxpayers. He suffered and died to free us from sin and death. He set the world on fire with his Good News so that nothing created would escape his invitation to receive God's freely offered mercy. He sent the purifying flames of the Holy Spirit upon the Church so that we would have the courage to be witnesses to his sacrifice, so that we would be equipped to give a reason for our hope in the resurrection. He didn't die to make us cowards in the face of the world's seduction. He died to make us saints and martyrs to the Truth – the Truth that set us free and sets us free everyday. If you will remain in him, then do as he does: set the world on fire with divine love.

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11 August 2019

66% of Catholics don't believe. . .do you?

19th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

To the great shame of every bishop, priest, deacon, and Catholic catechist in the nation, a recent survey revealed that fully 66% of Catholics either do not know what the Church teaches about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or do not accept the teaching. There are varying degrees of disbelief described in the survey and a catalog of the various alternative beliefs about the RP – but it's all too embarrassing and painful to talk about from the pulpit. If you've ever wondered whether or not Catholic catechesis in the last five decades has been an unmitigated disaster, wonder no more. This survey reveals a level of ignorance and infidelity unmatched in modern Catholic history. If the survey had revealed that 66% of Catholic didn't understand the delicacies involved in obtaining an indulgence, I'd be OK with that. If we were talking about 66% of Catholics not quite grasping the details of Aquinas' argument that God is subsistent Being-Itself, I wouldn't be worried. But that 2/3 of American Catholics either do not know about or do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a scandal approaching the magnitude of the Protestant Revolution in the 16thc. Yes, I'm exaggerating. But not by much. 
So, what is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist? Simply put, the Church teaches that during the celebration of the Mass, specifically at the moment of consecration – this is my Body, this is my Blood – the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The substance of the bread and wine – what they are – is transformed into the substance of Christ's Body and Blood. We call this change transubstantiation. The CCC (1374) teaches, “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist 'the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.' This presence is called 'real' [. . .] because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” Therefore, the bread and wine are not merely symbols of Christ's body and blood; and the Eucharist is not merely a symbolic meal to be shared by a community. Since Christ is made substantially present on the altar, the Eucharist is to be understood as our means of participating in Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. In the Mass, we reach up into eternity and God reaches down into history, and we are pulled back to Golgotha to bear witness to the sacrifice that makes our salvation possible. 
I will repeat: the Mass is not merely a symbolic meal where the community is reminded of Christ's sacrifice. The Mass is our immediate participation in his eternal sacrifice. The history of how we came to see the Mass as merely a symbolic meal is too involved for a Sunday sermon. Suffice it to say, that after VC2, there was a movement in the Church to de-emphasize the sacrificial character of the Mass in favor of a more Protestant view, the Mass as simply a memorial meal. The altar became a table. The chalice became a cup. The priest became a presider. And everyone was encouraged to receive communion. . .whether they were prepared to do so or not. The idea was: no one must be excluded; all must be welcomed! AND if all we're doing here tonight is acting out a memorial play, then why not invite everyone to eat and drink our symbols? That 66% of American Catholics do not believe in the RPC can be blamed on several factors: the rush to de-emphasize the sacrificial character of the Mass; a desire to be seen as welcoming; an embarrassment among Church leaders at the “medievalism” of the faith; and an ideological push to reshape the nature of the Catholic priesthood into something resembling Protestant ministry.

Regardless of what might have happened historically to the RPC, we must look to the future and understand why the RPC is necessary to the faith. First, the Church has always taught the RPC. From Christ himself in the Gospel of John to the earliest Church Fathers to the great medieval theologians right up to St. JPII, BXVI, and Francis. Second, if we are to be fed in the faith, we must be fed something of substance. If you were to eat an American flag, no one would say that you've eaten America. Symbols point to and denote; by definition, they are not the things they symbolize. We eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ so that we can become more and more like Christ. Eating and drinking a symbol is just eating and drinking a symbol. Third, St. Paul tells us that it is possible to “eat our own condemnation:” that is, to eat the Body and Blood unworthily is eat our own damnation. How can eating a mere symbol cause you to condemn yourself? Can you think of any symbol with that kind of power? No. But if the bread and wine really are the Body and Blood of Christ, then eating your own condemnation is real possibility. Lastly, Christ promises us in Scripture that he is with us always. When two or more are gathered. In the breaking of the bread. In prayer and fasting. In our joys and in our sorrows.

I'll end with a final exhortation: with the easy availability of on-line resources – the CCC, the USCCB website, dozens of Catholic Answers type sites, hundreds of forums to ask questions – there can be no excuse for ignorance of the faith. No one expects every Catholic to be an academically-trained theologian. I often find myself WAY of my depth when listening to the pros at the seminary debate some theological topic. We had a guest lecturer at NDS not too long ago. I was lost three minutes into the lecture, which proved pretty embarrassing for me the next day when the seminarians wanted me to explain his talk! I'm not saying that you must be able to carry on a detailed conservation about theological minutiae. I am saying that every adult Catholic should be able to answer basic questions about the fundamentals of the faith. Questions like: what does the Church mean by “the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist”? That's basic. At the very least, I would hope that you could say – w/o fudging – that you believe this truth. “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”

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07 July 2019

Your labor is worthless; work harder!

14th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

The CDC estimates that in the U.S. a person dies every twelve seconds. In the time it takes us to celebrate this Mass approx. 275 people will have died. We can't know how many of those people went to their graves w/o hearing the Gospel; how many went to their graves well-prepared for a final judgment. We can't know who received God's freely offered mercy for their sins, or who chose to live outside God's mercy forever. The Church does the hard work of preparing the ground, planting the seed, tending the shoots, and weeding the field. The final harvest is God's work. And that final harvest comes for someone in the U.S. every twelve seconds. The question we need to ask ourselves – as laborers in the field of the Lord – is have I done everything I can do to make sure that everyone I know and love, everyone I visit and work with everyday looks at me and sees Christ among them? If I were to ask your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors: who among you does the work of Christ for you – would your name be mentioned? If not, what do you need to do make sure they do?

I said earlier that the Church does the hard work of preparing the ground, planting the seed, tending the shoots, and weeding the field. And that God will take care of the final harvest. Christians – over the centuries – have been known to (on occasion) take on God's work in picking and choosing which crops get harvested, which plants go to fruit, and which ones go into the fire. While it is true that the followers of Christ participate in the divine life – imperfectly, we are not in fact divine ourselves. The final harvest is God's work. Leave that to Him. Our labors go into preparing the ground, planting the seed, tending the shoots, and weeding the field. It's not glamorous work. But it is necessary work. And it cannot be done by word alone. It takes deeds, actual labor. The labor of daily prayer. Faithful attention to the sacraments. Taking every opportunity to bear witness to the truth. Showing mercy by forgiving sins. Seeking forgiveness when we have sinned. It's the labor of knowing right from wrong, good from evil. Loving the sinner but despising the sin. Teaching the Way, the Truth, and the Life even when doing so may be embarrassing or difficult or offensive. It's the labor of growing in holiness by constantly embedding ourselves deeper in the world w/o becoming subject to the world. Jesus tells us that this is a dangerous task. Fortunately, you are not alone.

When Jesus appoints the Seventy-two, he says to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few. . .Go on your way. . .I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” Three points to note here: 1). there is an abundant harvest, souls who need Christ but do not know him; 2). there aren't enough laborers to help with this harvest, pray for more help; and 3). the harvest exists in a world of wolves, and we are merely lambs among them. These truths should be discouraging. We should be distressed that there aren't enough laborers, and that we are laboring among wolves. Why didn't our Lord arm the Seventy-two? Why not give them enough money to travel safely? Why not create a militia corps to escort his preachers through a dangerous world? There are a number of practical/logistical answers to these questions, but Paul's answer is sufficient: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Our peace, our protection, our power resides in the fact that we are new creatures, born again in water and spirit. We labor crucified to the world – dead and buried already in the world of wolves. Nothing done to us here and now will survive in the presence of God the Father. 
This truth should bring you peace. I don't mean that you can shirk your worldly duties, or that we can all run off to the hills and commune with the squirrels. The peace of Christ isn't a narcotic state of mind, or an absent-mindedness, or a momentary relaxation. The peace of Christ is knowing and believing that your life in the world is given its final meaning in the victory of Christ on the cross; that is, your purpose is living out the always, already accomplished victory over sin and death. The labor you have chosen to take on is nothing more than living day-to-day, hour-to-hour in full and faithful knowledge that – from eternity – the harvest is done. Christ wins. The Church wins. And now we go out and about making sure that everyone we know and love knows that Christ's victory is their victory – if they choose it to be. Do you live daily, hourly as a son or daughter of the Most High whose victory over sin and death is already accomplished? Your labor accomplishes nothing that Christ has not already done for you. Your labor is a sign and invitation to others to choose his victory for themselves!

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03 July 2019

Denying Thomas picks the wrong religion

St. Thomas the Apostle
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic, NOLA

Dominicans love to preach these readings for St. Thomas the Apostle's feast day b/c it gives us a chance to preach on one of the Church's philosophical foundation stones: there is no inherent contradiction btw faith and reason. There is no inherent contradiction btw faith and science. BishopRobert Barron recently noted that many young people who leave the faith often do so b/c they've been convinced that faith and science are opposed to one another. They choose to give their allegiance to science and abandon their faith. Of course, what they are really doing is simply switching their allegiance to another religion, one called “scientism,” the religious belief that naturalistic science is the only source of human knowledge. How is this a religious belief? Well, the founding principle of scientism is: “naturalistic science is the only source of human knowledge.” That is not scientifically provable theory. It is a metaphysical assertion, and believing it to be true w/o scientific evidence is religious. In the face of Thomas' demand for scientific evidence of his identity, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

It's vitally important to note here that Thomas did not doubt the witness of his fellow apostles. He denied it. He doesn't say, “Well, maybe Jesus showed up. I don't know.” He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, etc. . .I will not believe.” I WILL not to believe. He's Denying Thomas, not Doubting Thomas. And his demand for empirical evidence must sound perfectly reasonable to us. Alien abductions. The rougarou – that's Bigfoot's Cajun cousin. “Climate change.” The Loch Ness monster. Honest politicians. We want to believe, but we need actual evidence. Actual unmanipulated, empirical evidence. What we usually get is “recovered memories,” scratchy audio recordings, blurry photos, altered historical data, and campaign spin. So, when Denying Thomas lays out his conditions for believing – “I want to touch the nailmarks in his hands and the gash in his side” – we can almost hear ourselves saying, “Darn right! Prove it!” But Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” That's a whole other kind of standard for belief.

Notice the progression of Thomas' encounter with the Risen Lord: He sees. He believes. And then he is blessed. Jesus gives him and us a different progression: We believe. We are blessed. And then we see. In other words, belief is not a matter of assenting to the weigh of empirical evidence. I don't believe that objects fall to the ground when dropped. I know they do. To believe is to give assent to a truth that I do not yet fully understand, that I cannot yet fully articulate. By assenting to this truth – by believing – I receive the graces, the blessings necessary to see the truth more and more clearly as I grow in holiness. First, believe; then, see. Faith and science cannot oppose one another b/c both reveal divine truths. Faith cannot tell us how to measure the speed of light. Science cannot tell us why there is something rather than nothing. But both can reveal what is true. Denying Thomas' error is believing that empirical evidence is a necessary condition for religious belief. IOW, he starts with a false religious belief in search of a true religious belief. That will get you nowhere. Fast. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Put on the mind of Christ. Believe. Be blessed. Then see.

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02 July 2019

Worry kills

13th Week OT (T)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
“Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” You're about to drown in a storm and Jesus rebukes you for lacking faith. Not quite the time for a lesson. But. OK. What's faith got to do with worry? The human brain is nature's most powerful pattern-making machine. We take in massive amounts of sensory data and in milliseconds turn it all into a coherent, accurate depiction of the world. Second only to the power of the human intellect is the power of the human will. As we take in billions and billions of pieces of sensory data, and as the brain churns away at building an accurate picture of our world, the will is struggling to decide What To Do About All of This. How do I react? What can I change? Is this dangerous? Is that safe? Left to itself the will will always act to preserve the body, and if that means scaring the snot out of us, so be it. But living in a constant state of life-preserving fear can threaten our spiritual lives. We can come to believe – falsely – that by will alone we can change that over which we have no control. Faith is the willful act of trusting in God. We set our hearts and minds firmly on the way to eternity, training ourselves to see and hear this world as a passage through to God, back to God. Worry then becomes all about not trusting that God's care is sufficient for today. Worry is all about the lie that I am my own god; that I am my own Master.

And we know that we cannot serve two masters. I serve God, or I serve Myself. I live eternally in peace, or I die daily in worry. I place everything I am and have into His hands for His use, or I snatch it all for myself and desperately try to control the uncontrollable. Is there a concrete way to surrender to God? A way to open my hands and let it all fall into His lap? There are many. Here's just one, perhaps the best one: look at your world, your life, everything – family, friends, co-workers, possessions, everything, and consciously, purposefully name it all “Gift.” Nothing and no one is mine by right. Nothing and no one is mine by merit. Everything and everyone is to me and for me a God-given gift. As gifts, everything and everyone comes into my life gratuitously. Without condition or guarantee. Bless it all by naming everyone and everything with its true name: Gift. Food, clothing, job, spouse, education, talent, time, treasure, life itself, everything is a gift. Serve the Gift-giver by becoming His gift to others. Our heavenly Father knows what we need. Seek and serve His kingdom and His righteousness first. And everything you need will be given to you. “The [disciples] were amazed and said, 'What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?'”

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01 July 2019

An urgent patience

13th Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic, NOLA

If the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head, then neither does his Church. We are his Church wherever we find ourselves. There's no hurry to get “back home” just b/c it's bedtime. While the world's other institutions – gov't's, universities, scientific organizations, the U.N. – are all running around with their hair on fire, trying to solve the trendiest “problems” (most of which they themselves have caused) the Church plods along doing her thing. Being the living sacrament of Christ's love in the world. Occasionally, some priest or bishop or theologian will point at the world's whirling dervish investment in Doing Something and complain that the Church needs to Do Something Too! And all the Most Important People in the World will clap politely and say nice-enough things about the Church Person who's trying to climb onto the Urgently Trendy Stuff To Do Train and then go on about their Urgent Business. The cycle repeats, and the Church plods along doing what she does best: being the Body of Christ in the world. Oddly, being the Body of Christ in the world requires that all of us attend to the world with a great deal of patience and sense of desperate urgency.
So, Jesus is ready to depart across the sea. A clingy scribe declares that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus says, “. . .the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Then a desperate disciple asks Jesus to wait for him while he goes to bury his father. To him, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead.” These cryptic responses from the Lord might leave us wondering if Jesus clearly heard what these guys actually said. But if we remember that Jesus has his eyes on Jerusalem and his sacrificial mission there, his answers make perfect sense. The Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head b/c all of creation is his home, all that is belongs to him from the beginning. That's the source of our patience. The Church doesn't have to fight for victory b/c the war is always, already won. Our sense of urgency comes from the reality that only the dead need worry about burying the dead. Those who have yet to die in Christ are simply dead – even as they continue to flail around importantly. Let them do something that is actually useful and important – bury those who have died. We who have died in Christ have urgent business: the salvation of world. Jesus doesn't have time to wait for us to get things right before he heads to Jerusalem. 
As members of the Body of Christ, we follow Christ wherever he goes, and we “let the dead bury their dead.” We diligently plod along, spreading the truth of the Gospel despite the demands of the world, despite the trendy “problem-solving” that our betters seem to love. Our eyes are squarely focused on eternity, the long-game. Christ is always with us. And because he is always with us, we are urgently compelled to preach his Good News and, at the same time, diligently, patiently wait for the seeds we plant at his command to germinate, sprout, and blossom. There is no hurry in eternity. But while we're here, we've got an urgent message for the world.

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29 June 2019

What's Your Excuse?

13th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic/St Anthony/OLR

I wasn't even Catholic when – at age seventeen – I first heard the call to priesthood. For the next seventeen years of my life I answered God's call with “Maybe” and “Not Yet.” There were a lot of excuses and dodges. I need to finish college. Then, I need to finish my Masters degree. Then, I need to finish my doctorate. And all the while I was playing around with all sorts of spiritually dangerous ideas and practices, and not in the least bit interested in hearing anything God had to say to me. I applied to become an Episcopal priest in my home diocese. Got rejected. Applied again in another Episcopal diocese a few years later. Got rejected again. I joined the Church in 1995 and decided to revisit my priestly vocation. Three years in, I applied to join a religious order. They rejected me. Not too long after that, I got an internal staph infection that went undiagnosed for three months and came within a few days of killing me. That woke me up, and I got serious. I entered the Dominican novitiate in 1999, and I've never looked back. When Jesus hears our excuses, our delaying tactics, even our good reasons for not following him, he says things like, “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, [you] go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

So, yes, I spent seventeen years dodging God's call to priesthood. My excuses all sounded excellent at the time. I did need to finish my studies. I wasn't yet ready to fully embrace chaste celibacy. My parents weren't keen on me being Catholic. My group of university-educated, politically leftist friends hated the Church. There were a few things the Church teaches that I couldn't yet accept. I was living the typical life of a impoverished twenty-something grad student, which means I managed to stay alive in the fall semester by stealing fried chicken and liquor from the tailgaters in the Grove at Ole Miss home games. And I was still too much of a hard-headed, big-mouthed, cynical redneck to let anyone tell me what to do or believe. So, yeah, it took seventeen years and almost dying from an undiagnosed staph infection to get me to shut up and sit down long enough to actually listen to what Christ was saying to me. I finally heard him, “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, [you] go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” No more excuses. No more dodges. No more “good reasons.” Put your hand to the plow, and don't look back.

So, Jesus is walking the countryside, preaching the Good News. He comes across a guy and says to him, “Follow me.” What does the guy say in return? “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” A perfectly good reason to delay following Christ. Burying the dead, especially your dead parents, is an ancient obligation, one blessed by countless generations of families. This guy didn't say he wanted to finish his workday and get paid; or that he needed a shower and a clean change of clothes; he didn't say that he wanted to discern for a few years and attend some retreats first, or consult with his spiritual director. He wanted to bury his dead father! Knowing the urgency of the Father's Good News, and knowing how many hearts and minds longed to be turned back to God, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead. But you, [you] go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” What did the man do? Did he drop everything and follow Christ, leaving his father unburied? We don't know. Maybe we aren't supposed to know b/c “that guy” is you and me. Luke doesn't tell us how he responded b/c you and I are still responding. We are still answering (or not answering) Christ's invitation to follow him. You are That Guy. How do you answer Christ?

While you're considering your answer, think about this. Christ was not indiscriminate about who he invited to follow him. While he walked the earth preaching and teaching, he selected his close followers for personal instruction. Think of the Twelve. He chose them all by name to become his ambassadors to the world. He stood in front of thousands in his three years among us, and only occasionally to a very few did he say, “Follow me.” The universal call to discipleship and holiness comes after the Holy Spirit's visit at Pentecost. Only after Christ ascends into heaven does everyone receive the invitation, “Follow me.” While he was still among us, he carefully chose whom to invite. That Guy – the one with the dead and unburied father – wasn't just some random guy randomly chosen. Jesus knew him. Heart and soul, Jesus knew him. And he knows each one of us. The universal call to discipleship and holiness is directed at each one of us in the Church AND to the whole world. Jesus knows each one of us b/c we have died with him and we have been buried with him and we will be raised with him on the last day. We are members of his body, the Church. We have been chosen and invited. And so, he says to us, all of us, “[Anyone] who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is [not] fit for the kingdom of God.”

If we will be fit for the kingdom of God, we will not look to what we have left behind. Leave it behind where it belongs. Whatever “it” is. Leave the excuses, the bad decisions, the terrible mistakes, even the deliberate acts of vengeance and violence; leave the angry self-accusations, the guilt and the shame, all the junk that gathers around you when you wallow in sin. Leave it all. And plow forward. Go and proclaim the kingdom of God. Why not? I'm not smart enough. I'm not articulate. I'm shy. I'm afraid that people will think I'm weird. My family and friends will be embarrassed. I might lose my job. People will stare. What else ya got? You need to go bury your dead father? Let the dead bury the dead. When I entered the novitiate in 1999, I lost more than half of my friends and former grad school colleagues. By 2010, I had lost my two best friends of 24 years. When I say “lost,” I don't mean that they died. I mean that they cut me out of their lives b/c they hate the Church. My family – thank God – didn't turn away. Though they still look at me like I'm a partially-shaved circus monkey.

What and who are you willing to lose to follow Christ? You might not lose anyone or anything but your sins and those who encourage sin. You might not leave behind much at all. Or, you might have to leave everything and everyone behind. The decision to follow Christ is the decision to make him Master of your heart and mind. That means putting aside whatever or whoever else rules you. It means stepping off into another world of freedom, peace, forgiveness, and mercy. And it means giving to others anything that you have received from Him.

You're at the plow. Don't look back!

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08 June 2019

You. Are. Free.

Pentecost Sunday
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit after his ascension, and so he does! Hurricane winds and tongues of fire, driving the frightened disciples out into the streets of Jerusalem where they give God praise and thanksgiving in every known language – taking the universal Word of God into the hearts and minds of individual men and women, speaking their various languages so that the mercy of the Father is offered to and understood by everyone who has ears to hear. Bloodlines, ancestry, tribal identity, race, class – none of these matter anymore in matters of salvation. Why? B/c the Holy Spirit has washed over the disciples, set them on fire, and sent them out into the desperate world with the Word to preach and the work of Christ to accomplish. It no longer matters to your salvation that your mama was a Gentile, or your daddy a slave, or that you were born the “wrong kind of Jew.” It no longer matters to your salvation that you are a rich, land-owning foreign invader, or a bought and paid for soldier for the occupiers, or even – the worse possible thing you could be – a tax collector! If you have ears to hear, listen: you are no longer a slave to sin. You. Are. Free. You are free to grow in holiness by loving Christ and those he sends to you to love.

Everything that was once required of us to be in good standing with God has been fulfilled in Christ Jesus. The Mosaic Law. Fulfilled. The Prophets. Fulfilled. The animal sacrifices. Fulfilled. And now the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the fulfillment of Christ's promise to his disciples to send us an Advocate, a Defender, a spirit of consolation, strength, and joy. Now that we are free under the fulfilled law and recreated under the new commandment of love, we are ready to receive the Spirit of the Father and the Son who is Himself perfect love. In the same way that water is shaped by its container, so the Spirit is shaped by the one who receives Him. But the Spirit also does some shaping of His own. Some will be shaped to teach. Others shaped to preach. Some to lead, some to heal. Paul says, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” Whose benefit? The benefit of the Body of the Christ, the Church. We have been freed from sin not to pursue our self-interested church-hobbies, or to establish personal fiefdoms in the parish. We have been freed to serve the Body to the limits of our spiritual gifts. We have been freed so that we are able to choose the Final Good and grow in holiness by loving sacrificially.

And that is no easy thing. Before the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were locked in a room, terrified, every noise must've sounded like Roman legionnaires coming up the stairs to drag them off to be crucified. In their fear, they must've been thinking about Jesus and his teachings. How do we love our enemies?! How do we forgive 70x7?! How can we follow Christ when everyone out there is trying to kill us?! How am I supposed to be perfect as the Father is perfect?! And then – in the middle of all that anxiety and fear – Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you.” How do we accomplish all the things Christ asks of us? He says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” First, be at peace. The victory is won. We cannot lose b/c Christ has always, already won. Second, the Father sent the Son to us with the Holy Spirit. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Christ sends us out into the world with the Holy Spirit – our Advocate and Defender. Third, b/c salvation no longer depends on race, class, tribal identity, or birthplace, our work for Christ is universal. Anyone with ears can hear the Good News and receive forgiveness for their sins. We can offer freedom in Christ b/c we are free in Christ.

And it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit among us to give us everything we need to remain free – a well-formed conscience, a strong trust in God, a sure belief in the life to come, the ability and willingness to do the Good for others, and – tying all those together – an abiding peace, a peace that means we have settled into our bones a knowledge and love of God that cannot be moved and must be shared. If you have ears to hear, listen: you are no longer a slave to sin. You. Are. Free. You are free to grow in holiness by loving Christ and loving those he sends to you to love.

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27 May 2019

Remember and testify

6th Week of Easter (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Priory, NOLA

Brothers, we can't drop specimens of faith into a petri dish to examine its structure. There's no body to dissect or theorem to prove in the life of faith. Jesus tells the disciples that the Advocate will testify as a witness to the truth. Then he says to them and to us, “And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.” Through the tradition of the Church we have been with him from the beginning, and we do testify to the truth of the Gospel in our teaching and preaching. If there's a proof of faith or a faith theorem to solve, it's this: we embody the memories of those who lived the faith before us. That's not very scientific or mathematical. But it is what we do. Every time we climb into a pulpit or get behind an altar or throw on a purple stole for confession, we give flesh and bone in the present hour to a living relationship with the Divine, the God who created us and re-created us in Christ Jesus. They might kill us as sacrifices to God but one body is not The Body. As a church, our first ministry is to the memory of faith. Without that we are students without a text, students without a teacher.

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26 May 2019

Keep his word???

6th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

I'll be the first to confess that all this “loving Jesus” language makes me a little queasy. It sounds WAY too Protestant. Way too fundamentalist Protestant for my tastes. Growing up as a heathen in woods and hills of MS surrounded by Baptists, Pentecostals, and Church of Christ folks left me with an aversion to talking about Jesus in overly emotional terms. Any religious talk that was too intimate, too personal sounded like a sales-pitch, like an attempt to sell me a place on one of their denominational pews. We didn't talk that way in my family. We had Bibles in the house, and no one in my family denied the existence of God or the thought going to church was a bad idea. . .we just didn't go. We had things to do on the weekend – like clear land, tend gardens, and mow fields. So, when a town-dwelling classmate started talking about Jesus as his “personal Lord and Savior,” and bugging me about going to a revival at his church, I found somewhere else to be. It wasn't until I discovered and came to understand how Christ's love for me is mediated by his Word that my ample stomach calmed down. Jesus says to the disciples and to all of us: “Whoever loves me will keep my word. . .”

There are two elements in this teaching: “loving Jesus” and “keeping his word.” These two elements are connected by an “if/then” construction: “If you love me, then you will keep my word.” It logically follows therefore that: “Whoever does not love me does not keep my word.” Easy enough. Now, what does he mean by “keep my word”? How do we do that? In everyday speech we might say, “I will return the money I borrowed. I give you my word.” You might respond, “Your word is good enough for me.” I've made a promise and you've accepted that promise. That's a good start on what Jesus means by “keeping his word,” but there's a lot more going on here than the exchange of a promise. We know that the word “word” is used in a number of different ways in the history of the faith. The Father breathed the Holy Spirit over the void, speaking a single word – Christ – and everything came to be. The Bible is the written Word of God. Christ himself is the Word made flesh. The Church is the body of Christ who is the word made flesh. We are all members of that Church, and so we live united in the Word and as individuals words dwelling in Him. To put it a bit too poetically: each one of us is a word and we receive our meaning and purpose as words from The Word. 
So, “keeping Jesus' word” then means that I hold in the center of my heart and mind that I am an expression of Christ in the world for others. I'm not just someone who calls himself a follower of Christ. Not just someone who visits a church once a month or so, or someone whose nana prays a rosary for me every week. But someone who gets out of bed every morning knowing, feeling, thinking, speaking, and acting as another Christ for those I will meet that day. This isn't a cultural thing – like “I'm from New Orleans so I must be Catholic” sort of thing, or a family thing – “My family is Catholic so I must be Catholic too” – or a “Well, the man/woman I'm marrying is Catholic so I have to be Catholic too” sort of thing. This is a “If You Love Christ, Then You Will Keep His Word” sort of thing. If you desire holiness, the salvation of your soul, and the resurrection of your body come the end of the age, then you will live your life right here and right now as Christ lives his – fully in the presence of the Father with the Holy Spirit, keeping to His commandments; receiving His sacraments; abiding in peace and joy with one another; and doing every in your power to be the Word for others in this tragic world.
I noted earlier that I came to some peace with the “loving Jesus” language after I discovered and came to understand that divine love is mediated. What do I mean by “mediated”? None of us has a direct, unfiltered experience of God's love. His love for us is mediated – filtered – through His word: Scripture, Christ, and creation. It's through these three mediators or filters that we come to know and love God. Our knowledge and love of God is never just about our emotions. We know and love with the whole person – body and soul, intellect and will, everything we are. Never assume that b/c you don't feel all fluttery about Jesus that you don't love him. And never assume that your emotional attachment to some devotional practice or prayer is evidence of your love for him. Emotions can be deceiving. Instead, rely on what you do in his name, rely on how you keep his word in your thoughts, words, and deeds to guide your growth in love. And the peace and joy of Christ will be all the evidence anyone will need to see that truly love the Lord.

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19 May 2019

On not selling your soul

5th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

That phrase – “Love one another” – looks good on a bumper-sticker, or a cross-stitched pillow. We've heard it hundreds of times in homilies and lessons at school. We might even take it seriously and try to live it once and a while. But it's not always clear exactly what our Lord is commanding us to do. Is he commanding us to feel a certain way about everyone? Is he commanding us to express a certain sort of passion? He says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That last bit – “as I have loved you” – is big qualifier. But even that doesn't do much to make things any clearer. Is he commanding us to die on a Cross for everyone? Why would he command that? He's already sacrificed himself for us. . .once for all. If look back over Jesus' public ministry we can something of what he might mean by this last command. He teaches the truth of the Father's mercy. He preaches the necessity of repentance from sin in order to receive that mercy. He heals the sick, the lame, the blind. He feeds the hungry – both the physically hunger and the spiritually hungry. And he proclaims the Kingdom of God by forgiving sinners. This is how he loves us. And this is how we love one another as he loves us. We preach and teach the truth. We repent and receive mercy. We help for those who need help, and we forgive one another so that the Kingdom may be proclaimed.

Pop quiz: which one of the disciples didn't hear Jesus' last command? Judas. Judas leaves the table, and then Jesus begins, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. . .” Jesus waits until the Betrayer is gone before giving his last lesson in love to his friends. Why? B/c the treasonous disciple cannot bear witness to this truth, meaning, literally, he cannot. Even had he stayed with the others, we could not see it. He does not love the Lord; he does not love his brother disciples. He loves worldly glory and riches. He is blind to the heavenly glory that Christ shows to those who choose to love him. Had he stayed, Judas would not have heard Jesus say, “Love one another.” The ears of a traitor are closed to loyalty and love. And b/c loving one another is a hardship, betrayal come easily to those to who refuse to love. Judas didn't just sell his teacher for a pocketful of silver. He didn't just deny Christ and walk away. From the moment he listened to the offer to betray Christ – he sold his own soul. He sold the Way, the Truth, and the Life. . .and he sold his soul to the Enemy.

Judas refuses Christ's love, allowing the powers of this world to buy his integrity, his strength as a Good Man, as a man of God. He uses his friendship with Jesus to sell our Lord to his enemies. The powers of this world set a hardship for Judas. And he chose the easy work-around, the profitable exit. In other words, he compromises the very thing that made him a man of God, worthy of trust. Judas accommodates himself to the spirit of the age and ends his own life with a noose. We know all too well that the spirit of our own age is busy setting hardships for us. We are tempted to infect the Gospel with false religions. Compromise with secular power for material gain. Accommodate our moral principles for the sake of social standing. Surrender our freedoms in the name of security. And many of us lose our battles with these temptations. Many of us exhaust our strength by resisting. Here's what we need to know now: when we love another as Christ loves us, we have no need for a gospel other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ; when we love one another as Christ loves us, we don't need material gain, social standing, or security from the state. Everything we need is given by God so that we might live wholly in His love. 
Judas did not believe this. He thought he needed 30 pieces of silver. So, he died a traitor's death. Christ's love tells the truth; it never compromises or accommodates, nor do those who love one another in Christ. Jesus orders us, “As I [love] you, so you also should love one another.” His Passion and death began when the traitor left the table. Ours begins when we approach this table. . .and dare to share in his last meal.

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12 May 2019

Be a stinky sheep!

4th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Being a former farmboy, I am not all that happy about being compared to a sheep. Sheep are dirty. Loud. Stupid. And they stink. When I was in seminary, our preaching and Scripture professors told us to think carefully before we called God's people “sheep.” Is that really the image you want to leave with your parishioners? That they are dirty, loud, stupid, and stinky? If you call yourself a shepherd, then you're the keeper of the sheep; the rustler of the sheep; you poke at them to make them go where you want, and when the time comes, you fleece them! So, maybe the whole sheep/shepherd image is a bit outdated. Unless, of course, you remember that back in Jesus' day sheep were a foundation stone of the economy. They provided just about everything needed to survive. They were cared for almost like a family's children and were protected from lions and wolves. That sheep/shepherd image has two sides. The side Jesus uses this evening is the side that places the sheep well within the family, well within the protection of the Father. He places us – his sheep – in familiar territory, in comfortable reach of food, water, and shelter. He places us – his flock – within reach of his Word.

Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” How do we explain that some who heard Jesus teach and preach turned away from him? That some openly opposed him? That others started to follow him but abandoned him along the Way? And still others stuck with him almost to the end? Those who have ears to hear will hear and those with eyes to see will see. Those who are most in need of mercy and desirous of it will hear and see the mercy Christ offers to them. The “poor” – those who live lives of spiritual poverty – see the riches Christ offers them. They recognize those riches as theirs, or they don't. They receive those riches, or they don't. IOW, we will choose to follow Christ, or we won't. There is no halfway. If we choose to follow, we follow. We follow behind, stepping where he steps and heading in the same direction at the same pace. If I am running head, or walking off in another direction, or skipping along toward a cliff – I am not following. I can say that I'm following Christ, but I can also say that I'm the 25yo multi-millionaire quarterback of the NOLA Saints. Don't make it so. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” If you follow Christ, he knows you. And if he knows you, then you have heard his voice.

To be a follower of the Good Shepherd means that you belong to a flock, a family of individuals who heard the voice of Christ and chose to follow him. We came into an existing family, a long-lived, long-suffering family that's been through every trial and tribulation the Enemy could invent. For over 2,000 years our flock has endured, persevered, rebuilt, struggled, and fought for the faith on just about every continent in every language known to man. And here we are doing it some more! We endure and persevere and rebuild and struggle and fight for the faith b/c we chose to follow the Good Shepherd. We rely on his protection, his strength, his love, his mercy. And we will always have all that we need to carry on. Some will hear and turn away. Others will hear, join us, and leave. Still others will recognize in the voice of Christ – that's me and you – the Father's offer of mercy and stay with us. If you'll forgive the image – they will add their stink to ours and become invaluable sheep. About us and for us, Jesus says, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”

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02 May 2019

No rationing the Spirit!

2nd Week of Easter/St. Athanasius
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

In the midst of some horrible situation – final exams, Capstone project due in ten minutes, you've missed your homily tutorial – in the midst these horrible situations, have you found yourself crying out to God, “O Lord! Please help me! I'll pray three rosaries a day for a year; give up coffee for a week; and read all of my assignments next semester if you help me!” This cry from the heart is a cry for grace – divine assistance, and I've no doubt that all of us here have at one time cried out to God in such desperation. We might imagine a distant, mostly indifferent deity wafting around in heaven oblivious to our (mostly) self-inflicted wounds, a deity whose attention we must attract and whose pity we must entice with promises, bargains, and offers of sacrifice. So, we begin. We promise. We bargain. We offer sacrifice. And, inevitably, we slink away in confusion and disappointment when our rich bounty of proffered spiritual loot results in nothing more than a Grand Silence from the heavens. The problem here is this: this is how the pagans pray. John teaches us, “[God the Father] does not ration his gift of the Spirit.” And neither do those who follow His Son.

When we pray, we testify; that is, when we open ourselves to commune with the Divine, we bear witness to the reality of God's presence in our lives, and we manifest the Spirit of God who animates everything we think, say, and do. Because God does not ration His Spirit, His Spirit is freely given in infinite abundance to any and all who will receive Him. There is no promise, no bargain, no sacrifice that is worthy of this gift. There is no created thing that can be offered to Divine Love Himself that equals the generosity of this gift to the believer. The only proper response upon receiving the Spirit is infectious joy, copious praise, and perpetual thanksgiving. To be clear: in receiving the Spirit there is no necessary exchange btw God and His creature. We have nothing to give Him that is not already His. For our sake, we are allowed to speak as though there is an exchange – a way for us to grasp imperfectly the nature of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. But truly – what we have to give ultimately comes to nothing: our sin, our disobedience, our rebellion. So, when desperate, do not promise or bargain or sacrifice. Instead, receive. Open your heart and mind to the abundance of the Spirit and bear witness in prayer to the Divine Love Who created you, who re-created you in Christ, and who will make you perfect as He Himself is perfect.

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15 April 2019

Make room for the Cross

Monday of Holy Week
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St D.'s, NOLA

This is a week of “self-emptying” for Christ. Yesterday, he entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” By Saturday, he will have been betrayed by a friend; arrested, denied, tortured, and nailed to a cross. He will be dead and buried. Yesterday, we heard Paul tell us, that “though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself (ἐκένωσεν). . .” He emptied himself of what? Not his divinity. Not his humanity. We need both for our salvation! Christ emptied himself of all attachments, all sentiments, all worldly weights and anchors. As Mary pours the expensive funereal oil on his feet and as Judas the Betrayer objects to the terrible waste, Jesus begins to die. He lets go of friends, family, disciples, anyone and anything that might allow “this cup to pass” from him. Jesus doesn't cease loving his family and friends in order to let them go. He begins to love them sacrificially. He pours them out so that the Father's will might more perfectly take their place. This is the challenge of Holy Week: detach, pour out, empty yourself so that there is nothing left in you but your desire to be crucified with Christ on Good Friday.

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14 April 2019

Remember: you asked for his crucifixion

Palm Sunday 2019
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Imagine walking into the French Quarter as thousands of people cheer your name, throw flowers at you, and as you wave, they cry out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” IOW, imagine you are Drew Brees and that the Saints won the Superbowl last year. The city, the state, the whole world is yours! Now, imagine just a week later those same people, those same adoring crowds, are cursing you, screaming for your blood, spitting on you, and cheerfully handing you over to the Feds for execution. This isn't a lesson in the vagaries of celebrity, or how we create our heroes in order to destroy them. This isn't any kind of lesson at all. It's history. It's what happened. Jesus entered Jerusalem – exactly as he had told his disciples many times he would – and the people of Jerusalem hailed him as their savior and king. Perhaps the disciples remember at this point that Jesus also told them that he would be betrayed, handed over to his enemies, and executed. That also happened. It's history too. And now we've begun in earnest our inexorable march toward Holy Week and Easter. Come Good Friday, remember Palm Sunday. When we cheer for his crucifixion, remember that we once cheered his kingship. 
This week, I challenge you to consider this: our Lord's resolve to die for us on the Cross didn't change b/c we greeted him with joy on Sunday, nor b/c we cheered for his death on Friday. He knew he mission. He knew his goal. And our wish-washy wants made no difference to him. He went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. And his earlier prophecies played out exactly like he said they would. Judas betrays him. Peter denies him. Pilate scourges him. And the centurions nail him to the cross. As he prophesied – he dies, willingly, so that we might live and live eternally. Whether we boo or cheer, whether we believe or do not, whether we ask for it or not, Christ Jesus went to Jerusalem and died on a garbage heap for the salvation of the world. Receive this gift with praise and thanksgiving so that when he comes again you will be known and loved as child of the Most High.

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