06 June 2014

Off to New Jersey!

I am off bright and early tomorrow to Summit, NJ where I will teach a series of classes to the Dominican novice nuns of the U.S.

We'll be studying fundamental theology -- revelation, method, etc. 

Be back in NOLA on June 15th.

Pray for us!

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05 June 2014

How to get in trouble with Zeitgeist, Inc.

St. Boniface (Readings for the Memorial)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA 
From the Vesper’s petitions for the Commons for Martyr’s: “Lord, hold us fast to preaching the gospel even in the face of opposition, persecution, and scorn.” Christian preachers are often tempted to let go of the Gospel when confronted by entrenched opposition. Like water seeking the fastest and easiest route downhill, preachers are coaxed toward taking the most direct path to the dilution of Christ’s teaching and, ultimately, a betrayal of the Spirit that animates us. We see and hear this when preachers begin preaching a Prosperity Gospel—Jesus wants you to be rich!—; or when they begin preaching a Zeitgeist Gospel—Jesus wants us to “fit in” with our times so we can witness from within;—or when you hear the Gospel of Identity Politics—being American, Black, Gay, Male or Female, Left or Right is preached to be more important than being faithful to Christ. All of these, of course, are dodges, ways around the difficult demands of what Jesus teaches us to be and do. They allow us to sift out the hard stuff and celebrate that which most tickles our bored ears. True martyrs (not self-appointed martyrs) present us with an extraordinarily hard reality: they believe the Gospel and die proclaiming it. Could we do the same if called upon to do so? 

St. Boniface, an eighth-century English Benedictine bishop and martyr who served as a missionary to Germany, wrote to a friend, “Let us be neither dogs that do not bark nor silent on-lookers nor paid servants who run away before the wolf…Let us preach the whole of God’s plan…in season and out of season.”* Though this sounds benign enough, Boniface died doing it, or rather died because he did it—he barked and refused to be hired as a religious P.R. man for Zeitgeist, Inc. Paul found himself in a similar position. Paul reports in Acts that he was seized by the Jewish leaders in the temple and almost killed because “[he] preached the need to repent and turn to God, and to do works giving evidence of repentance.” Should we be shocked that Paul would find himself the target of the powers-that-be? Not really. Jesus warned his disciples that they would follow him to the cross if they persisted in preaching his word. And it is persistence that most often gets the Gospel preacher and believer into trouble.

Jesus says, “A hired man, who is not a shepherd…sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away…” The wolf attacks the sheep, killing one or two and scattering the rest. Why does the hired man run? Jesus says, “This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.” A preacher hired by Zeitgeist, Inc. will do the same—cut and run when it looks as though the wolves of persecution, opposition, and scorn come bounding down the hill. The good shepherd will stay and fight. And though he will never lose, he may sometimes die.

There’s almost no chance that anyone here this evening will be called upon to die for preaching the Gospel. In the U.S. in the 21st century, the Zeitgeist has learned more subtle ways of tempting us away from the Good Shepherd. Perhaps the most powerful temptation comes from the devil of freedom, or more accurately named, the devil of choice. Dangling before us the illusion of unfettered choice in a marketplace of unlimited options, the devil of choice coaxes us with a powerful sense of entitlement, a sense of being owed our comfort, our liberty. And so, we stand dumbfounded in the Wal-Marts of religious goods and services, the Winn-Dixies of spiritual options, and we pick and choose. I will preach mercy but not justice; love but not responsibility; forgiveness but not sin. I will preach heaven but not hell; faith but not obedience. With a shopping cart full of our hodge-podge choices, we check-out and pay with our souls, and then go out preaching a gospel half-bought. If our souls must be the currency with which we purchase a spiritual good, let that purchase be our eternal lives with Christ. As the Dogs of God, we can do nothing less than die while ferociously barking the Gospel just as Jesus taught it.

* from the Office of Readings, St. Boniface

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St Martin de Porres Province on Youtube!

Lots of vids of our Student Brothers preaching in the studium.


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04 June 2014

Are you consecrated in Truth?

7th Week of Easter (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

If Truth were a commodity—like oil or pork bellies—its stock value would be very low these days. With the exception of the Church, no one seems to care much about what's true or false anymore. We are far more likely to hear that truth is a tool in the oppressor's arsenal; or that truth is just a traditional fiction dreamed up by neurotics; or that truth, at best, depends on one's perspective. You have your truth. I have my truth. Who's to say what's true or false? It just depends. Rather than ask if a bit of information is true or false, we're told to ask, “Who benefits from this information? Who's harmed?” Rather than seek the truth, we are urged to “create a narrative,” or “build a perception.” When did this sort of deception creep into our world? Sometime right after God told Adam and Eve to avoid eating the fruit of one particular tree, the world's first salesman convinced them that God was lying to them. Several centuries later, that salesman's political ally asks Jesus, “What is Truth?” And then washes his hands of Jesus' death. But before he is arrested and executed, Jesus prays to the Father, “Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth.” Assuming the Father answered this prayer by fulfilling Jesus' petition, what changed? How are we different?

When something is consecrated it is set apart for some special use and only that use. Chalices are consecrated for use at Mass. Churches are consecrated for public worship. We don't use a chalice to swig beer nor do we use a church to host a crawfish boil. When a person is consecrated something similar happens. That person is set apart for some special task and only for that task. Monks and nuns come to mind. They are consecrated to a life of prayer. Dominican friars are consecrated to a life of preaching. And all baptized Christians are set apart to give public witness to the Gospel. So when Jesus asks the Father to consecrate us in the truth, what is he asking? It seems that he's asking God to set us aside in the truth; that is, to move us over into the truth in some special way, to preserve us for some special task that requires that we be in the truth. Now that awful question rises again, “What is the Truth?” Jesus answers, “Your word is truth.” God's word is truth. God's promises are truth itself. All that God has spoken through the Law, the Prophets, and through the Word made flesh is truth. All that God has revealed to us through scripture, creation, and His Christ is truth. Jesus is asking his Father to set us apart to live in His truth while we reside in the world.

Jesus' petition for our consecration is bracketed by two statements: “They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world” and “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.” Because we belong to Christ, we cannot belong to the world. However, Jesus says that he sends us into the world as he himself was sent. Therefore, we must be consecrated in the truth, set apart in God's word so that we can bear witness to His mercy in a world that we don't belong to. Jesus says, “I gave them your word, and the world hates them. . .” Of course it does! The world loves violence, spite, revenge, falsehood, and death. God's word shines the glaring light of truth on the world's most fundamental spiritual darkness: the pride of a creature who has rejected the rule of its Creator. We are set apart in God's word to announce the Good News of His mercy. We are not set apart so that we can pretend to be politically infallible, or economically incorruptible, or scientifically inerrant. We are set apart in the death and resurrection of Christ as that we might be witnesses, givers of testimony to the word we have received: this world will pass, God's truth will not. His truth endures forever, and so do all those who receive His truth and announce His Good News.

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01 June 2014

Listen to Ascension Sunday homily!

Audio file for Ascension Sunday homily


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Are we standing around looking at the sky?

Ascension of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic/Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Audio File

Right there in front of them. . .right before their eyes. . .“as they were looking on, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” Place yourself in this scene. You're just standing there with your friends, listening to your teacher lecture. He's repeating some of the same stuff he's said a thousand times before. You have absolutely no idea what he's talking about. One of your more impatient classmates asks Jesus if and when he plans on restoring the kingdom of Israel. Ah! Finally, a real question! Let's get this revolution started! Then Jesus starts taking about times and seasons and the Holy Spirit and Jerusalem and being his witnesses all over the world. And just as your eyes are about to glaze over. . .WHOOSH!. . .he flies up into the sky in a cloud, disappearing from sight. Like everyone else who sees this, you're standing there stunned, looking up into the sky, shocked, amazed, wondering what just happened. Then two guys dressed in white show up and ask, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Why are we standing here looking at the sky!? Um, b/c our teacher just got kidnapped by a cloud? Here's another question just for us: why do the guys in white ask the stunned disciples why they are looking up at the sky?

Had the disciples been paying attention to Jesus' answer to the question about restoring the kingdom of Israel. . .had they been paying attention for the three years they were with him. . .they would not have been at all shocked by his ascension into the clouds. Not only would they not have been shocked, they would've been expecting it. And they would've watched his rise for a second or two and then waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit so that their work could begin. Before he disappeared into the sky, Jesus had instructed his students, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” That's pretty clear. Make disciples. Baptize them. Teach them my commandments. Not all that complicated really. So, why the hesitation? Notice how the disciples approached Jesus that day on the mountain in Galilee, “When they saw [Jesus], they worshiped, but they doubted.” They offer him due praise and adoration, but they also doubt him. How do they both worship Jesus and doubt him at the same time? The answer to that question tells us why they are standing there looking at the sky.

Seeing your teacher and friend kidnapped by a cloud is pretty amazing. It's worth a gawk or two. But when you think back to the work he's given you to do – make disciples, baptize them, teach them his commandments – his sudden disappearance is a little traumatic. He's leaving us with all this work! All that doubt that you felt comes roaring back and you start to wonder if you can really finish all that he's given you to finish. Even before he charged you with making disciples and teaching them his commandments, you knew that he would going away. Not how exactly but that he would be. So, you do what comes naturally: you worship the Son of God as you should but you also feel the pressure of uncertainty, the heavy burden of not-knowing whether or not you can do all that he asks of you. In the drama of his ascension, you forget that he said, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Then two guys dressed in white show up and ask you why you're standing there looking at the sky. You answer, “I'm mourning. I'm wondering where to go from here, how to get started on all I have to do.” And there's another week to wait before the Answer comes in fire and wind.

Right before Jesus gives them the Great Commission, the disciples worship their teacher. They give him thanks and praise for his presence among them. But under their adoration is a shadow of doubt, just a hint of uncertainty and fear. Can we go on without him? How do we follow him if he's gone? What's happens to us once he leaves? All of them are disciples. All of them are baptized. All of them are well-educated in his commandments. Yet, they doubt. These men and women are not fairy tale heroes. They are not mythical figures that embody archetypal truths. They are men and women. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Real flesh and blood folks. Jesus doesn't teach them fables to guide them through life's hard choices. He doesn't offer them sage advice or moral lessons. In word and deed, he reveals to them the purpose and plan of his Father. He brings them into the history of salvation and makes them participants, players in his Father's program of redemption. Of course they doubt! What ordinary person wouldn't doubt, knowing that he or she is cast as an agent in the rescue of Creation from sin and death? The Holy Spirit has not yet come to them, so their worship and doubt is perfectly ordinary. 
Let's ask ourselves a question: are we standing around looking at the sky? Do we understand our commission from Christ solely in terms of waiting and watching for his return? If so, then our doubt has won out over our zeal for witness; that is, if we still think of our faith as a life lived watching the sky instead of as a means of bringing others to Christ, then we are failing to carry out Our Lord's commission. Jesus says, “Make disciples. Baptize them. Teach them my commandments.” That's our fundamental task. Whatever else we may be doing as his followers, whatever else we may think is necessary for our growth in holiness, our job description as Christians is crystal clear. And yes, even as we carry out Christ's commission, we will doubt. We will be afraid. We'll fall and get back up. We'll fuss and fight with one another over big questions and small. But when our lives together as brothers and sisters in Christ become an elaborate picnic of standing around looking up into the sky, we must immediately remember Christ's words to his friends, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Why are we staring at the sky looking for Christ? He is with us always.

Jesus' ascension directly challenges the disciples and us to think hard about how we are spending our time and energy as followers of Christ. There is a heaven. And we are made and remade to spend eternity there. There is a time and place to build an interior castle, to wander around in our own souls, seeking the presence of God. We should ponder the divine mysteries, explore our vocations – run after all the things of heaven! But none of these is an end in itself, none of these is our charge. We are disciples. Baptized and well-educated in the commandments of Christ. We are still here b/c there are still some out there who have not heard God's freely offered mercy to sinners. There are still some out there who have not seen God's love at work in the world. They've not seen me or you following Christ. Do they see us standing around looking up at the sky? Wondering what could possibly be so fascinating about a cloud? Make sure they see you and hear you doing Christ's work and speaking his word. That's the only reason any of us are still here.
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