05 October 2013

On being set aside. . .

NB. From 2009. Alas, never preached this one. . .I was looking for an example of a meditative homily to show my students.  What do you think?

7th Sunday of Easter: Acts 1.17-17, 20-26; 1 John 4.11-16; John 7.11-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Walking the streets of Rome can teach you a lot about negotiation. Walk up the Via del Corso on a Saturday afternoon. Sidewalks jammed with idly strolling citizens. The street choked with wandering tourists lost in their maps. Fashionistas linger in front of the shop windows, damming up traffic, sending thousands into the street to play catch with the taxis. For someone with a destination in mind, a purpose and a goal, taking the del Corso is an adventure in paying attention, dodging threats of bodily harm, and negotiating the perils of polite society. Will that bus stop at the crosswalk? Will the group of trendy ladies in front of me stop suddenly to squeal over a pair of Ferragamo pumps? Do I need to say “excusa” every time I bump into someone? What degree of impatience do I express when zipping past the amorous couple clogging up the sidewalk with their public display of sloppy affection? You have a goal, a purpose; you have a destination and a mission. You don’t have the time or the patience or even the inclination to suffer these social obstacles lightly, to indulge these worldly distractions with anything less than haughty contempt! How often do you sigh in angry exasperation and imagine yourself screaming: “For the love of all that is holy: move!” When you are a Christian and the world you live in is the Via del Corso on a Saturday afternoon, how do you negotiate the traps, the potholes, the slippery curbs? How do you weave through the foot traffic without landing in the street dodging the buses? Do you surrender to the flow, slow your pace, assume your place in the crowd, and hope your destination comes to you? What happens to the urgency of your mission? Your schedule? One vital point to keep in mind when thinking about these questions: as Christians, we are set apart; we are not set above.

Knowing that his time draws near, Jesus commends his people to the Father. Lifting his eyes to heaven, he prays to God: “I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely. I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” What could Jesus mean? Of course, we belong to the world! We need food, drink, clothing. We are as much affected by gravity, the weather, and the passage of time as anyone else. We have jobs, kids, taxes, and all sorts of worldly ties. We are bound to all the physical necessities of living well in our skins. How exactly do we not belong to this world? What sets us apart? In other words, how are we consecrated in truth? And how does this complete our joy in Christ?

Many of the great heresies in Church history are deeply rooted in a distorted view of the relationship between heaven and earth, body and soul, world and Church. Like most heresies, these distortions exaggerate a distinction, mutate a vital difference, and privilege one extreme over another. In the early Church, most heresies exaggerated the spiritual over the material, leaving us with a disembodied Christ and a purely mystical, intellectual faith that proclaimed the evils of the flesh and demanded radical asceticism. Today, we tend to the other extreme, privileging the material and historical, leaving us with a Christ who is just some guy who said some interesting stuff about the need for social change. Among those who saw the world as a place of greed, lust, and gluttony, the only way to combat murderous distraction was to withdraw into the desert to seek out a spiritual purity in extreme practices of bodily mortification. Among those today who see the spiritual, especially the moral, as a kind of straight-jacket, a fuddy-duddy fussing about mythical codes of behavior, the world is a place of license, freedom, unlimited choice. Even among some Christians, the world is to be revered, imitated, and lauded, if not worshiped. What both the desert-dwellers and the world-worshipers fail to see is that the “world” Jesus implicitly condemns is not the material world, the cosmos of stuff and physical law, but that time and place where the powers of rebellion and strife hold sway, the material and spiritual battlefield where obedience to God and the temptation to disobey God compete for our allegiance. This is the world we are in and yet the world we do not belong to.

To be consecrated in the truth in this world is to be set aside by grace to achieve a divine purpose wherever you find yourself. You will not fulfill your divinely gifted purpose by hating the material world and living only for the spiritual. You will not fulfill your divinely gifted purpose by hating the transcendent world and living only in the flesh. We are body and soul. Neither one nor the other wholly without the other. If you are only your soul, then what you do materially is irrelevant to your spiritual growth. Be spiritual! And be as you please. If you are only your body, then what you believe about the spiritual is irrelevant to your material growth. Just do it! And do anything you please. Christians are saddled with a much more difficult task: as embodied souls consecrated in the truth, we are bound materially to a world ruled by sin and obligated to achieve spiritual purity in the midst of physical temptation. What we do materially affects us spiritually. What we believe about spiritual truths affects us materially.

If this is true, and it is, what good does it do us to be consecrated in the truth? We are set aside not above. “To consecrate” means “to aside for a specific purpose.” We consecrate things, people, places. We don’t use the altar as a card table. We don’t use a chalice to chug beer. Priests and religious do not participate in government as elected or appointed officials. As baptized priests, prophets, and kings of the Father’s Kingdom, we are set aside to work toward and achieve a specific goal, an end that perfects us in all His gifts. Notice that Jesus does not say that he has removed us from the battleground of this world. He does not elevate us above it or subject us to it. He does not say that we do not belong in the world. He says that we do not belong TO this world. We are not slaves, citizens, or subjects of the dominion of the Enemy. Our purpose is not defined by the laws of nature or the rules of engagement followed by the Enemy. We are free. We are free from this world in order to be free for this world. Not above the world. Not of this world. But in it and beside it, not belonging to it, but free to show a better way, a divinely gifted Way.

Our joy is completed not by worldly victory or political conquest. We are not given a completed joy by winning elections or getting federal funding. There is no joy in making ourselves slaves to a world we do not belong to. There is no joy in raising ourselves above it all, or fleeing into the desert to watch it all burn. Our consecrated work, our baptismal duty is right in the middle of the mess, squarely centered in the heart of the world, right where the Enemy is strongest. We are chosen to be vessels and conduits of God’s love for the world and to the world not because we are morally superior or spiritually invincible. We are neither. We are chosen because we chose to answer His call to be everything He made us to be in love. A choice anyone can make.

To this world, we are dramatic, pathetic failures. Lost and hopeless zombies driven by superstition and irrational religious mythology. In this world, we can be tragic examples of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and religious zealotry. For this world, we are a comedic scandal that brings salvation and peace. But for this to work, we must be set aside in truth. Engaged but detached. Involved but distant. Who and what we are most fundamentally is found in our end not in the means we use to get there. But our means must always prophesy the truth of the gospel. How else do we witness to our divinely gifted end if not through our divinely gifted means?

We are consecrated in the truth so that our joy may be complete. We are set aside in Christ by Christ so that we may come to him in the end wholly joyful, perfected in love. John writes: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.” Our nearly impossible task is to love God and one another in a world ruled by the Enemy. Tempted though we are by passions unruled by reason, we are set aside for a purpose. That purpose and its pursuit is how we succeed—in our witness, in our ministries, in our duties to Love Himself.

In and beside this world, shining out the love and mercy we have received, we bring our joy to its highest human perfection. Beyond this world, having done as we promised to do, we become Joy, seeing Truth Himself face-to-face.

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The Mass: Line by Line


The Mass: Line by Line

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Director of Homiletics, Notre Dame Seminary

A series of six one-hour classes on the Missal text of the Mass*

(We will read and discuss the text of the Mass, focusing on the theology of the Eucharist)

Starting Wednesday, Oct 16 at 7.00pm and meeting for the next five Wed's

4640 Canal Street
New Orleans, LA

 * Copies of the Missal text will be available


The moral failure of the Wounded Healer

Just had to share this. . .

The Shea (and his Enormous Beard) was recently seized by the Holy Spirit and inspired him to write the following:

The priesthood is about service, not about clerical voyages of psychoemotional self-discovery in which laity and their children play bit parts while an ordained narcissist and his pals take center stage as the stars of their own spiritual drama. 

Though Shea wrote this bit of brilliance in response to a specific case of moral cowardice, the sentiment applies across the board.

The priesthood is NOT: 

-- a social club

-- a therapy-encounter group

-- a frat 

-- a Wounded Healer lobbying group

-- or a Narcissists Fanboy Drama.

The Baby Boomer clerical obsession with psychobabble and therapeutic solutions to moral problems has left us with at least one generation of priests and religious who see repeated moral failures as nothing more than opportunities for "voyages of psychoemotional self-discovery."  

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04 October 2013

The Counterfeit Christianity So Many Prefer

From Archbishop Caput. . .words of Wisdom:

The words and habits of religion are easy. We can sometimes use them to fool ourselves. We need to drill down below the counterfeit Christianity so many of us prefer into the substance of who we are and what we really treasure. We need to let God transform us from the inside out, and conversion requires humility, patience and love. It requires letting go of the desire to vindicate ourselves at the expense of others. So much of modern life, even in the Church, is laced with a spirit of anger. And anger is an addiction as intense and as toxic as crack.

Pharisees come in all shapes and sizes, left and right. We need to be different. As Pope Francis said in his La Civilta Cattolica interview, the Church needs to be more than “a nest protecting our mediocrity.” We prove or disprove what we claim to believe by the zeal and joy of our lives. What we need to do in the years ahead is what God has always asked us to do: forgive each other; encourage each other; protect the weak; serve the needy; raise the young in virtue; speak with courage; and work for the truth without ceasing—always in a spirit of love.
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Pantheistic Harmony ain't Franciscan Peace

Once again, defying the desperate/vain hopes of CathProgs. . .

Franciscan peace is not something saccharine. Hardly! That is not the real Saint Francis! Nor is it a kind of pantheistic harmony with forces of the cosmos. . .  That is not Franciscan either; it is a notion some people have invented! The peace of Saint Francis is the peace of Christ, and it is found by those who “take up” their “yoke”, namely, Christ’s commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. This yoke cannot be borne with arrogance, presumption or pride, but only with meekness and humbleness of heart.

Hear, hear! 

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01 October 2013

Is he the Pope, or isn't he?

HEAR YE! I'm tired of orthodox Catholics bitchin' about Pope Francis. I'm sure the Devil loves hearing the self-righteous wailing of Catholics who think that they know the faith better than the Vicar of Christ. 

Francis isn't interested in America's culture war. . .he has an international to Church to run. The Church in the US is NOT the center of the Catholic universe.

BOTTOM-LINE: He's the Pope, or he isn't. Choose.

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30 September 2013

For Fr. Blake & Mundabor!

Just a quick note to give a shout out to my British readers at Fr. Blake's Blog and those arriving here from Mundabor's Blog

God's abundant blessings be upon you all!

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29 September 2013

Woe to the spiritually complacent!

26th Sunday OT 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA 

Pursue righteousness. Fight hard for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life. Paul lays bare for his student, Timothy, the path of perfection, the way through to Christ, and writes to him, “I charge you before God. . .to keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .” Do this and you will keep the commandment until he returns. The prophet Amos shows us the way of those who chase after the world, move along with the world, and follow strange gods: “Woe to the complacent. . .Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches. . .They drink wine from bowls. . .Therefore, they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.” Amos is chastising those who waste their time with material luxury, but we can easily see time—and lives—wasted in wanton spiritual revelry as well. Woe to the spiritually complacent. . .for they live in exile already. 

God's prophets were never ones to mince words or shy away from preaching tough love. Amos' “woe to the complacent” is the Third Woe of his three woe prophecy against God's people. The First Woe (or curse) is a curse against the unjust: “Woe to those who turn justice into wormwood and cast righteousness to the ground.” The Second Woe is a curse against those who long for the Lord's day of judgment: “Woe to those who yearn for the day of the Lord! What will the day of the Lord mean for you? It will be darkness, not light!” This Second Woe is directed against those who believe themselves to be righteous but are in fact only self-righteous. They yearn for the Lord's judgment against those they see as sinners but fail to see their own sin and the dark judgment they bring upon themselves. Injustice against the poor and self-righteousness in judgment arise out of spiritual complacency, what Amos might call “wanton revelry” and what we usually experience as religious pride. Our relationship with God is established at His initiative, governed by His will, and directed toward His purpose. Religious pride tempts us to believe that we control our spiritual lives; that we are in charge of how and when we will see and hear the Lord. Such pride is born of complacency, a self-serving self-satisfaction. 

Spiritual complacency can take on many forms. For example, when we pick and choose from among God's truths those that we find pleasing and reject those that we find inconvenient, we lend aid and comfort to the enemy. It's just easier to pick those divine truths that make our lives in this world less turbulent. We can coast for a while but eventually our accommodating niceness to the world isn't going to be enough. We hear louder, more strident demands for concessions; louder, more strident cries that we renounce even those truths that once pleased the world. Before long—just to get along, just to survive—we find ourselves immersed in wanton revelry, a pride-soaked spiritual binge that destines us for exile. How does this happen? Besides all of the smaller truths we surrender, we give up the larger truths as well, and the foundational truth—that our relationship with God is in His hands—even that truth falls. And our exile is complete. How do we avoid spiritual exile? Pursue devotion, not popularity; faith, not security; love, not vengeance; patience, not passion; gentleness, not severity. Pursue Christ, not the world! Chase after holiness, not hypocrisy. Walk with the Church. And in all things, follow him. 

Luke gives us a vivid illustration of what happens when we pick and choose from among God's truths, when we surrender the whole truth of what He has to teach us for the smaller satisfaction of believing we are in control. The rich man is richly blessed by God. Such blessings require a special dedication to charity and justice for the poor. The man celebrates his blessings in wanton revelry but ignores his obligations to charity and justice; specifically, he ignores Lazarus, a diseased beggar, and ends up in everlasting torment after he dies. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus down with just a drop of water to cool his burning tongue. When Abraham denies this plea, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the reality of hell. Abraham's replies: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” If the rich man's five brothers have Moses and the prophets to teach them righteousness, how much better then are we taught when we have Christ, his Church, his Blessed Mother, and the saints to show us the Way? If any one of us should choose to exclude ourselves eternally from the company of God and His blessed, we cannot claim that we didn't know the Way to heaven. At most, we can say that when we picked the truths we wanted to believe, we picked the wrong ones. 

Now, if all of this sounds a bit depressing, it should. We are not only encouraged by our culture to be spiritually complacent, we are rewarded for it by the powers of this world. If that's not enough to frighten us into repentance, then maybe the story of the rich man will. If that's not enough, then all we have left is our gifted desire to seek out and find our perfection in God through Christ. In an interview last week, Pope Francis said, “The most important thing [for the Church] is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” The fullness of God's truth, the Everything of His plan and will for us, the All of His method and purpose in our lives is given flesh and bone in Christ Jesus. We offer on that altar this evening the whole body and blood of Christ in thanksgiving. Not just his thumbs or his ears. Not just precious memories or a version of his teachings. We offer him, whole and entire. Not parts and pieces. Not symbols. But Christ. The one truth of God that cannot be divided, cannot be picked over and carefully parsed for our convenience. His Passion, death, and resurrection brought to life in us a seed planted at creation: the obtainable desire to live forever with our Creator. 

And this is where the Universal Church finds herself in the year of our Lord, 2013: always tempted; frequently challenged; persecuted at times and pressed on every side; offered compromises, negotiations, and treaties. Disparaged and demeaned, we respond with our best efforts, and our greatest weapon: our steadfast obedience to the first commandment—love. Not some fluffy-cute-little-kitty-mushiness but Divine Love! As far as we are capable, we love our enemies as God loves us. . .and our enemies. We love despite opposition, oppression, and persecution. Paul writes to Timothy, “. . .pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith.” We can none of these if we spend our days in wanton revelry, in spiritual complacency, picking which of God's truths we will believe and which ones we will discard. We accept Christ—the whole Christ—and follow him, or we do not. He died to save us from the darkness of the world. The world has its own plans for us. But we can love it, even as we leave it behind. 
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I resent beggars. . .

Here's a homily from 2010 preached at Blackfriars, Oxford U.  

26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Blackfriars, Oxford

I resent beggars.* I avoid them when possible and ignore them when they can't be avoided. When they can be neither avoided nor ignored, I simply refuse them. Since I live in Rome most of the year, avoiding, ignoring, and refusing the Eternal City's legions of panhandlers has become something of an art for me. It is almost possible for me to make my way to and from the priory without feeling as though I have damned myself eternally. Almost. Living in the mid-town district of Houston, TX helped to train me for the running the begging gauntlet of Rome. Daily, nightly, all through the day everyday, the doorbell of the priory would ring. My wife and kids are up on the highway in our broken down car. I need $7.82 to buy a bottle of oil. I am stranded on the interstate and need just $5 to buy some fuel to get me home. Same story, different dollar amounts. Day in, day out. Once, just once, an honest beggar said to me, “I'm losing my buzz. Need a few bucks to buy some beer!” Without fail, I refused to give them cash. Most of the time, they accepted my offer of food and water. I don't resent beggars b/c they interrupt my work or cause me a bit of trouble in the kitchen. I resent them b/c they remind me just how far I am from attaining the holiness that brings the peace of Christ, just how much more there is for me to work on, to perfect, in order to achieve the necessary detachment from fleeting things. Like Lazarus outside the rich man's door, these beggars are a sign, a memento of impermanence—no less worthy of God's bounty than the rich man in his fine garments or a friar in his only habit. In this world, we too are impermanent, a vanity made to die. How should we live knowing this truth?

The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is not a story about the blessedness of destitution and the evils of wealth. Billionaires can be saints and beggars can be sinners. Jesus makes it clear that holiness is more readily achieved in poverty b/c a beggar's heart and mind are not focused on earthly treasure. However, a billionaire who shares her wealth in love for the sake of Christ does holy work. Beggars and billionaires both can lie, cheat, and steal. And both are perfectly capable of great charity and mercy. We could say that the question here is not what does one have or have not but rather what does one do with one's wealth or poverty. But these miss the point as well. Maybe the question is one of attachment. Is wealth or its absence the whole focus of your life, the defining quality of your existence? Closer but still not quite right. What if the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a story about how you choose to love, that is, how you choose to manifest love in the world? By what means—tangible, palpable, really-real—what ways do I, do you leave evidence of God's love behind? Giving a beggar in the Corn Market a pound or two may assuage my guilt, but have I loved? Organizing meetings on the causes of poverty, protesting corporate greed, and calling for the redistribution of society's wealth, all of these might edge me closer to a feeling of “getting things done,” but am I doing any of these for love, for God's love?

Let's ask an existential question: whether you are 16 or 60, who do you hope to become? Since you are here this morning, we can wager that you hope to become Christ! That's what you have vowed to strive for, promised to work toward. You died and rose with him in baptism, and you eat his body and drink his blood in this Eucharist. If you are not intent on becoming Christ, then you have come to the wrong place. Why? By participation in the divine, we become divine—perfected creatures made ready to see our Creator face-to-face. Let's break that down a bit. If God is love (and He is), and we live and move and have our being in God (and we do), then it follows that we persistently exist in divine love. Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we live and move and have our being in the creating and re-creating love of God. If we are to become Christ—fully human, fully divine—, we must participate wholly, fully. . .heart, mind, body, strength, intention, motivation, completely and without reservation, holding nothing of ourselves back, and shedding everything that prevents the light of Christ from shining through us: false charity, self-righteous indignation, token works of mercy, vicarious poverty, the delusions of worldly justice. Becoming Christ is always and only about becoming Christ for others and doing so for no other reason than to be a witness to the love that God is for us. To become Christ for any other reason is to become the Rich Man who steps over Lazarus on his way to yet another sumptuous feast.

Earlier on, I asked, how should we live knowing that we are impermanent beings? We can take the Rich Man as our anti-example. Why does he find himself in Sheol? Not because he's rich. But because he failed, repeatedly failed, to love. Like us, the Rich Man lived and moved and had his being in Love Himself. He was gifted, freely given, all that he had and all that he was. While living and moving and being on earth, he refused to allow the light of God's love to shine through his words and deeds. Lazarus was for him a sign, a memento of impermanence, a story about the vanity of all the things he held dear. But he refused to see the signs, refused to read Lazarus' story, and God honored his choice to reject His divine love by allowing him to abide forever outside that love. Sheol, or hell is by definition, one's “self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed...” God does not send us to hell, we send ourselves. Just as the Rich Man places a limit on his love, so God honors that limit after death. The chasm that separates the Rich Man from Lazarus after death is precisely as wide and deep as the chasm the Rich Man placed between the freely given love of God and the beggar, Lazarus. Failing to participate in divine love while alive, the Rich Man chooses to deprive himself of that love after death. And so, he finds himself in Sheol begging the beggar for just one drop of water. 

Our Lord commands us to love one another and to go out and proclaim his love for the world. He does not charge us with ending hunger or fighting poverty or ending war. Our goal as followers of Christ on the Way is not is turn Lazarus the Beggar into Lazarus the Respectable Middle-class Worker. When we heed our Lord's command to love, feeding the hungry and standing up for justice come naturally; these arise as works uniquely suited to the witness we have to offer. What could be more just, more perfectly humane than helping another to see and enjoy the image of God that he or she really is! Poverty, hunger, war, all work diligently to obscure the image of God placed in every person. But they are all just effects of a larger and deeper evil: the stubborn, cold-hearted refusal to manifest the divine love that created us and re-creates us in the image of Christ, a refusal that God Himself will honor at our death. 

How should we live? As if we were Christ himself among the poorest of the poor, enthusiastically loving because we ourselves are so loved.

*When I preached this homily, the irony of this opening sentence struck me.  As a Dominican friar, I am a beggar!

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