Published June 24, 2012
St. John the Baptist, whose birth we celebrate today (June 24), was killed by a vain, self-serving king because he dared speak truth to power. John the Baptist had been thrown into prison by King Herod because he persisted in condemning Herod’s illicit marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. John’s mission was to prepare the nation for Christ. And the way he did that was by calling everyone to repentance, even the king. He tried to get him to change his thinking and turn back to God. But that only enraged Herod, proving the axiom: “If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you. But if you make people really think, they’ll hate you.”
It is eminently fitting that we remember John the Baptist on this, the first Sunday of the “Fortnight for Freedom” in which all Catholics are urged to pray and fast for our country and that our first and most basic liberty be respected by the government. What brought all this about, of course, was the contraceptive/sterilization/abortion provision mandated by Health and Human Services director Kathleen Sabellius. This action is a direct assault on religious liberty and the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Not only does this administration have the audacity to impose something it knows to be deeply contrary to the Catholic faith, it has the further audacity to arrogate to itself the power to define what constitutes a religious institution.
When John was born everyone thought his parents would name him Zechariah, after his father. But he was given the name “John” by the angel Gabriel. The name “John” means ”Graced by God” (from the Hebrew Yehohanan = Yahweh has been gracious). And indeed He was for Zechariah and Elizabeth, his wife, were graced by God and given a son having been barren their entire lives. Well past child bearing age, Elizabeth miraculously conceived. What a blessing! But the birth of John was not for their happiness alone. He was born for a purpose: to prepare the way for Christ. Each of them, Zechariah, Elizabeth and John, were part of God’s plan. Each of them in their own unique way were to prepare the nation for God. Each of us in our own way is also called to prepare our nation for God. We must, like John, be active in the world, stand up for moral truth and be willing to speak truth to power. But we must be faithful to God first, and that means we must listen to His word. We must prayerfully read the Bible every day and meditate on the word so that we can “hear” what God is saying to us. It’s no use just reacting to the latest offense against religion. We must respond thoughtfully in a spirit of love, even to our adversaries. And we can only do that if our thoughts, words and deeds are rooted in prayer.
Published June 19, 2012
I love my job. But one of the downsides is that my day is spent in a kind of hermetically-sealed Catholic bubble. Surrounded by like-minded people who love the Church and are serious about their faith makes it easy to forget how hard it is for those who live and work in a secular environment day in, day out.
Being immersed in the faith is a wonderful thing, but it can also make it hard to relate to people steeped in secularism, which means practically everyone. Because secularism is the mainstream of modern American culture, it’s easier to go with flow than against it because it’s so normal. And because secularism is so normal, nobody notices it. After all, you don’t notice the current when you’re going with it, but only when you’re going against it. A secularist doesn’t think he’s a secularist. He just is. Secularism isn’t a consciously chosen belief system, it’s just assumed; taken for granted like air.
I think that’s one reason why the Obama administration was surprised by the reaction to the contraceptive mandate. It didn’t see anything odd about a secular government agency defining what kinds of organizations are religious, and which ones aren’t. But in order to determine what kinds of institutions are “religious” it had to use some sort of criteria. It had to measure it against something. That “something” is secularism. From a secular point of view, schools, hospitals or homeless shelters aren’t religious enterprises, only churches are. The administration, like most people, doesn’t see secularism itself as a belief system, an ideology, a point of view. It doesn’t see it at all. A secularist notices secularism about as much as a fish notices water.
There’s a silver lining in all of this though. We tend not to notice those things that are just normal. When Christianity was the norm, people hardly noticed it and took much of it for granted. Even those who didn’t go to church assumed a Christian world view. As a result people of faith tended to become complacent, and complacency led to indifference, and indifference led to inactivity, and inactivity led to abandonment. Something had to fill the void, and something did. Secularism replaced Christianity as the dominant world view. But now that Christianity is not the norm, people notice it; including religious people, maybe especially religious people. For if we take our faith seriously and really try to live it well, we notice in double-quick time just how difficult it can be. It’s natural to go with the flow. But when you try to live your faith and resist secular values, you notice it more and therefore value it more. And that’s a good thing.
Published June 14, 2012
June 14 is Flag Day. It commemorates the adoption of the U.S. flag by congress in 1777. To fly the flag is a small gesture of patriotism and a way of showing respect for one’s country. A healthy patriotism doesn’t ignore the faults and failings of the past, nor those of the present. It certainly doesn’t mean we aren’t critical of our nation’s political leaders. A healthy patriotism puts love of country above allegiance to any political party or individual.
Patriotism is an expression of our faith because of its connection to the fourth commandment. To honor our country is simply an extension of our respect for our parents. As the Catechism says, “God’s fourth commandment also enjoins us to honor all who for our good have received authority in society from God. It clarifies the duties of those who exercise authority as well as those who benefit from it.” 
I came of age at at time when patriotism was not at all fashionable. Like so many of my generation I became deeply cynical about America largely because of the untrustworthiness of political leaders. But as I’ve gotten older, and hopefully a little wiser, I’ve learned that while, yes, there is much to criticize about our country, love of country is different from political allegiance. Patriotism is a virtue. It’s important that we not confuse a healthy patriotism with blind allegiance to a particular party or politician Indeed, a healthy patriotism enables one to ‘question authority’, challenge inept politicians and resist unjust laws.
Again, the Catechism:
“The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” 
Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, one of the Church’s great bishops, has spoken often about responsible citizenship and patriotism in light of our Catholic faith. When we put God first and honor him above everything else, respect for country finds its proper place. Now, at a time when religious liberty is under threat, exercising responsible citizenship isn’t just patriotic, it’s our duty as Catholics as a matter of faith. Love of country and fidelity to God and his Church requires that sometimes we must stand up and make our voices heard in the political arena. Now is one of those times.
As Archbishop Chaput has said many times, we become good citizens by being good Catholics first.
Published June 11, 2012
The gospel reading for today (Feast of St. Barnabas) is the Beatitudes. They begin with with a call to humility and end with a warning about persecution. Each step along the way is a step in the path to holiness in imitation of Christ. Each Beatitude counters some convention about what constitutes human happiness. The first Beatitude is perhaps the most important and the most difficult for nobody wants to be poor. We like our creature comforts and the security that a good income affords. Our sense of self-worth is typically measured by material success. Home ownership, the ability to pay for our kid’s college, taking a nice vacation each year, owning a new car and having the most up-to-date things in technology are the marks of middle class success.
But what happens when you can’t have all those things? Are you any less valuable as a person? Of course not. No one who has God for their Father is ever poor. No one who follows Christ will ever feel deprived. Indeed, it is those who don’t have a nice house, a new car and the latest iphone, those who can’t go on nice vacations to Mexico, that are, in the mysterious providence of God, truly happy. Having little they rely on God more knowing that what little they have comes from him. If you have been blessed with wealth, be grateful … and humble, for your good fortune could just as well be otherwise. And if you have been fortunate in the ways of the world, be generous with what you have.
Barnabas, like so many of the early saints and martyrs, gave up everything, including their lives, to follow Christ. Worldly success isn’t a bad thing, but when God is the center of our lives, material well being is secondary. When your spiritual well being comes first, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you’ll be happy regardless because you will be blessed by something much deeper and lasting.
Published June 6, 2012
In his second letter to Timothy, Paul urged his young protege to “rekindle the gift of God within you” reminding him that he was not given a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of ”power, love and self control.” These words are relevant to those who live and work in a secular environment. The pervasive secular ideology tells us that it’s fine to be religious as long as you keep it to yourself. Sometimes we can feel intimidated and so our temptation is to shrink back and not say anything for fear that we might make someone uncomfortable.
Paul encourages us, however, to not be afraid to speak up and to be confident. But such confidence must be tempered by charity and self control. Charity toward those who don’t share our faith, and self control so that we don’t lose that focus. The “power” of which he speaks is the power of the gospel itself. By staying grounded in the words of Christ and the teachings of the Church we can be confident that the truth will bring light and healing. Everything we say must be said with love. One of the things that often prevents us from speaking out is the worry that we’ll lose our cool and say something unkind and so we don’t say anything. We need to be in command of our feelings and not let them get the best of us.
Each day take time to ”rekindle the gift of God” first given to you at your baptism. Imagine the Paschal flame that was given to you by your parents and godparents. It’s now your responsibility to keep it burning.
Published June 2, 2012
Pope Benedict said recently that before we can talk about God, we must first talk to him. Talking to fellow Catholics about God is relatively easy because we pretty much share the same world view. But when I try to talk about God, or the Church or the Bible to someone who doesn’t share my faith, that’s a lot more difficult. To start with, what they know about God, the Church, etc. comes from sources that are either ignorant of or hostile to the Church or both. Usually both. Flooded with so much misinformation and distortions it’s hard to talk about God in ways that make sense. That’s why prayer is so important. Prayer keeps us honest. Prayer keeps us humble. Prayer of course is more than just talking to God. It’s a conversation that involves listening. In fact, listening is the more important part of prayer. If we don’t take the time to listen to what God has to say, we’re hardly going to take the time to listen to what those who don’t share our faith have to say.
Although it’s not easy, it’s important not to get flustered and angry when talking with someone who disagrees with you. St. Dorotheus (d. 362) said there are a number of reasons why we might get upset with someone, but the main reason is that we fail to acknowledge our own faults. “The reason for all disturbance,” he said “is that no one finds fault with himself. This is the reason why we become angry and upset, why we sometimes have no peace in our soul. However many virtues one may have, if he has left the path of self-accusation he will never have peace: he will be afflicted by others or he will be an affliction to them and all his efforts will be wasted.”
When I’m engaged in dialog, if I don’t know what to say or am flustered, the prudent thing to do is stop, take a deep breath, and listen; listen to what the other person is saying and more importantly, listen to what the Lord is saying. Finding just the right words to say what you mean isn’t easy. The wrong word or a clumsy expression, a defensive or belligerent attitude can negate hours of otherwise fruitful dialog. Clarity and charity is the goal and prayer is the key. I have no right to talk about God unless I’m also talking to, and listening to God.