15 September 2019

Don't get lost

24th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Here's the upshot of our three parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son: if you're lost, you can found. As long as someone is looking and you want to be found, you will be found. Jesus isn't talking about being physically lost here like lost in a strange city w/o a working GPS. He's talking about being lost along The Way, lost off the path to holiness and salvation. This kind of being lost is the worse kind b/c it can end in being eternally lost. So, Jesus wants us to know that God the Father never stops looking. He never ceases searching for us. God the Father is always prepared to welcome us back, to take us in, and give us everything we need to become part of His family again. But we have want to be found. We have to will to come back. The wandering sheep is lost but doesn't know its lost. Same goes for the missing coin. The lost sheep doesn't understand the dangers of falling off a cliff or getting eaten by wolves. The coin doesn't know that it's basically worthless while wedged between floorboards. But the son, the lost son, he knows that being lost, being away from his father has caused him no end of grief. He comes back. He comes back to forgiveness, mercy, and a loving home. And so can we.

It's one thing to wander away from the Church out of neglect or just plain old ignorance. It's quite another to be thrown away from the Church, to be run out of the Church by an angry pastor or haughty parishioners. But to simply walk away, to get lost on purpose is in a whole other realm of Getting Lost. Over my years as a priest I've heard dozens of reasons people give for abandoning the Church. I don't get anything out it. Too much emphasis on boring ritual. Too many hypocrites in the parish. The Church won't celebrate my favorite sin. Always talking about money. All the tradition is gone. Father was mean to me. Too much politics. All religions are basically the same anyway. I could go on for another hour. But each of these is like the lost son taking his abundant inheritance and blowing it on wine, women, and song. Blowing all that he inherited from his father on living it up in the world. And for what? To end up working for a pig farmer and eating what the pigs leave behind. Nearly starving to death on the garbage the world feeds him. Desperate and alone he does the only thing left for him to do. He swallows his excuses and goes home. He expects to find his father in a rage. Instead, he finds forgiveness b/c his father was waiting in love.

You and I are the lost son. Every time we sin, we walk away from the Father. Sometimes it takes nearly starving to death to bring us home. Sometimes it takes being humiliated or nearly ruined to bring us back. Whatever it is that turns us again toward the Father, the Father is always waiting to give us his best cloak and roast up his fattest calf. He wants us to know all this so that no matter how far we run away from Him, He is always right where He has always been. The shepherd leaves 99 sheep to search for the lost one. And he rejoices when he returns home with that sheep across his shoulders. The woman sweeps her whole house looking for one lost coin. And she rejoices with her neighbors when she finds it. The father of the prodigal son rejoices when his boy comes home. Why? Because the son wanted to come home. He willed to return to his family. When you and I want to be found, we will be found b/c God the Father is always right where He has always been.

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31 August 2019

Serviam, non serviam. . .you decide

Audio link

22nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Serviam. Non serviam. God has banished his brightest angel to Hell for rebelling against Heaven. Satan, the Arch-fiend, surveying his fiery kingdom and his fallen kin, boasts to his minion, Beelzebub: “Here we may reign secure, and in my choice/To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:/Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav'n” (Book 1). Non serviam. I will not serve. And b/c Satan once and always chooses not to serve, he is eternally chained by his bitter pride, “rolling in the fiery gulf,” Milton writes, “Confounded though immortal.” As a creature of God, Lucifer, receives from God not only his very being but also every gift that he needs to thrive as a servant of the Almighty. Yet, out of jealously and pride, he rebels, placing himself above the duties and obligations of a creature and settles himself into an immortal existence of bitter and ultimately impotent rage against his Father. That is pride's pay-out: bitter, impotent rage. But a rebel against God doesn't have to be an angel first. We humans are quite good at rebelling against our Creator. Every moment of every day, we are all saying, in thought, word, and deed either: “Serviam.” I will serve. Or “Non serviam.” I will not serve. We serve Self, or we serve God. There is no third option.

So, if we are not serving God, then we are serving Self. But how? Sure we avoid the obvious, public displays of Pride that might've been thought good and true in Jesus' day – like marching up to the seat of honor at a wedding feast; or boasting loudly of our wealth; or bragging about our sexual conquests. We know now that that sort of thing is impolite. I hear my grandma's voice, “That's just tacky.” But there are many other more subtle ways that we can serve Self instead of God. You can serve your passions. You can allow your fears, lusts, anger, and loves to run wild, and believe yourself entitled to a forgiving audience. You can serve your will. You can assert your choices, your personal preferences and demand that they be honored simply b/c you asserted them. You can also serve your intellect. You can come to think that your reason by itself is capable of knowing any and everything worth knowing. In other words, in each case, you elect to serve a temporary, limited, unfaithful god. YOU. And like Satan and his minions in Hell, you can become quite proud of your rebellion. An impotent, bitter rebellion against the Very One who holds you in being.

So, what does non serviam look like for us? What does the refusal to serve God actually look like down here on earth? Think about your daily routine, your daily life. Think of each moment as a chance to serve God in love, faith, and hope. To be a living sign, a prophet of mercy to others. Think about each of those moments and then think what it means to say No. I will not love. I will not forgive. I will not believe. I will not hope. I will not pray, sacrifice, or give thanks. I will not be generous. I will not trust nor will I praise. I will not obey. What I will do is do and think and speak as I wish when I wish to whom I wish b/c I serve ME. My life; my choice. My choice; my right. My right; I'm right! This is the bitter, impotent rage of Pride and it places us in the company of the Devil, among his minions, ruling Hell. . .b/c I will not serve. Another way to say this: I will not to serve – deliberate, conscious, voluntary. To serve Self rather than God. And therefore the consequences that flow from this choice are mine to bear. Individuals makes these choices. Couples, families, states, and nations makes these choices. . .daily. And the consequences flow accordingly.

The better seat – the Best Seat – at the wedding feast is the seat offered to you by the Host. Not the one you choose out of Pride, believing falsely that you deserve a better seat, or that you've earned the best seat. But the seat given to you by the Host, the one He knows you deserve b/c you grasp the reality of your relationship with Him. You have lived a life in service to the Truth, serving Him by serving His; always giving thanks and praise for every gift; always bearing courageous witness to His mercy; always placing yourself last – not b/c you are worthless but b/c you know you have been made worthy by His Son. Made heirs in the family. We do not earn that seat. We don't buy it or rent it. We can't steal it or bribe our way into it. We inherit a seat at the table. As loving and well-loved children of the Father, we inherit our places at the feast. And it is humility and godly service that keeps us firmly within the Holy Family. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Every second of every day until you die you are offered a chance to serve God and secure your inheritance. Which will it be: serviam or non serviam? Choose wisely.

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28 August 2019

An interview with me on Youtube

I was interviewed yesterday at Notre Dame Seminary by Ms Linda C. Jones, a well-known singer and musician in the New Orleans area.

(That intermittent fasting stuff needs to work faster. . .)


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25 August 2019

Squeezing through the Narrow Gate

21st Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Audio File 

Jesus says that the gate to salvation is narrow. This worries me. . .as I get wider and wider with age! The whole Squeezing a Camel Through the Eye of a Needle metaphor makes me wonder if there's any hope that an Ample Friar can find his way to the Heavenly Banquet. Of course, there's always hope. There's always the attempt, the hard try. Maybe I can wiggle, twist, and stretch my way through. Beg, bribe, pitch a fit. Or maybe I can try to figure out a way to widen the Gate; figure out a way to get Jesus to do a little renovation and make that Narrow Gate into some nice, wide French doors. OR! I could do the right thing: confess, repent, do my penance, and sin no more. Call it a Spiritual Diet – a way of trimming down my sin-fat soul. Here's my theory of the Narrow Gate: the gate is inversely proportional to the size of the Pride trying to squeeze through. The bigger one's Pride, the narrower the gate. Humility, however, widens the Gate. The truly humble soul strolls through a Gate large enough to pass an aircraft carrier. Jesus says that many will not be strong enough to enter through the Narrow Gate. . .so, measure your strength in terms of humility.

The first lesson in humility for us comes with the way Jesus answers – or doesn't answer – the question he's asked while traveling to Jerusalem, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” A curious question. Why would anyone want to know this? The more sensible question is, “Lord, will I be saved? Will my family be saved?” The question as asked makes it sound as though the questioner wants to be among an elite few, a chosen group. It's a nosey question designed to puff up the questioner's sense of self-importance. Jesus doesn't answer that question. Instead, he gives the questioner some much-needed advice, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Now, if you're sure you're gonna get through the Narrow Gate, and you want to make sure that you will be among an elite few on the other side, then this advice has to sound a bit ominous. It must strike at the core of your Pride to think that you might not be strong enough. Good! That's the point. If you're worrying about whether or not others are going to squeeze through, but simply assuming that you will. . .you may need to be the Spiritual Diet, losing some Pride and gaining some Humility.

The second lesson in humility comes in the parable Jesus tells about those left outside the house after the master locks the door. Knocking on the door and begging to be let inside, the latecomers will claim to know the master from previous dinners and his teaching in the streets. The master says, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” Not only are they left outside but they are evildoers as well! What did these latecomers expect? B/c they had dinner with the master and heard him teach on the streets a few times that they were entitled entry into his house? Salvation is not based on knowing the Right People, on social connections or family ties. Remember: some on the Last Day will cry, “Lord, lord!” And the Lord will say to them, “I do not know you.” Pride assures us that our social standing, our wealth, our education, etc guarantees salvation. But Christ wants to know: do I know you? Do you know me? If you know him, then you know that everything you have and everything you are is a freely given gift from him, including, and most especially, your very life. Pride tempts us to confuse status in this world with salvation in the next. Just so we're clear: Pride lies!

The third lesson for us in humility is perhaps the harshest. After believing – falsely – that merely knowing about Jesus and rubbing elbows with him at dinner parties would get them through the Narrow Gates, the latecomers are treated to a vision of all those who will be invited in once they're refused entry – all the prophets and people from every corner of the world. And these aren't just any people. These are the last among us, those who put themselves last. They will be first through the Narrow Gate. These are men and women who have taken the time and energy to come to know Christ as their Savior. The ones who have taken on his mission and ministry and carried it out in their daily lives. These are the children of the Father who forgave, showed mercy, stood tall for Truth, followed the Way, refused to compromise with the world, and loved sacrificially. In other words, they followed Jesus to their crosses and gave themselves as an offering for others. That's Humility. If all this sounds hard, listen again to Hebrews: “. . .do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.” Pride corrupts; humility teaches.

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23 August 2019

Audio: 20th Sunday of OT

Fr. Colten Symmes, a former student of mine, and a priest of the Diocese of Biloxi, asked me to record my homily for the 20th Sunday of OT, "We Don't Need No Therapist Jesus!

He posted the recording on his Youtube channel, Salty Light.

Now that I know I can record with my cell phone -- duh! -- I will be posting audio for all my homilies.

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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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