Religion is Good for Society
The following letter to the editor appeared in the Modesto Bee on Monday, February 27th, 2012.
The Bee generally accords religion the significance it merits in world and local culture. Unfortunately, on Feb. 21, it printed two cartoons on the Opinions page that ridiculed Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.
There’s been a good deal of silly talk recently about the “virtues” of atheism and the “illogic” of religion. Some say that the public expression of belief in a higher power (“religion”) harms society. Certainly some types of religion are better than others, and some will practice even the best of religions badly. But is religion in itself
bad for society? To answer that question, simply look at the societies that have tried to eliminate religion: Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Cuba, for starters. Others come to mind: North Korea, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Europe has been trying to eliminate religion for the last forty years, and is now headed for bankruptcy. America, by contrast, has retained a healthier respect for religion, and religious freedom. Is it only by coincidence that America also leads world culture and economics? America has retained a healthy respect for religion and religious freedom until … now. Do we really want to go the way Europe is going?
Homily: "If you die with me, you will rise with me"
Lent: dust to dust
How is your lent going? We are five days into this most holy season, a retreat time of purity, sacrifice, and joy. I am preaching all of Fr. Peter’s English Masses this weekend to introduce myself as your Lenten Mission director, and to encourage you to attend the mission, which will be at 7pm Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the coming week.
I hope many of you were able to kick off Lent with a good Ash Wednesday. At my parish of St. Joseph’s in Modesto, the crowds were immense. In my 12 years as pastor, I’ve never seen crowds that big or lines so long. Everyone was there: rich and poor, Mexicans and Anglos, teens and seniors, even democrats and republicans. It reminded me of Ash Wednesdays in New York City, where I attended seminary. We would spend all day at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, giving out ashes. Everyone came for ashes: the cabbies and the power brokers, office gals in smart business suits wearing their running shoes for the trot over from Broadway, news anchors and opera stars from Times Square, street cleaners and Wall Street financiers, homeless folk and Park Avenue elite. All were shoulder to shoulder in line, patiently waiting to get a smudge of ashes under the great gothic arches of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This is the day when princes and paupers alike confess the universal truth: I am not perfect, I will die someday, and I need God’s help.
It’s ironic, really. As religion is more than ever ridiculed, as God is increasingly mocked in public life—even as our government seeks to shut down religion in America, the crowds at Mass are bigger than ever. Why is this? Because we know that sin is killing us: our marriages, our families, our culture. Deep down we know this, and we seek refuge in the simple truth of Ash Wednesday: “If you die with me, you will rise with me.”
In the first reading, a flood wipes out the whole mess. Only Noah and his family are saved from death in those raging waters. The Flood was not God’s punishment for sin, but the consequences of our sin. And yet, even so, God said never again. How would he save us from our own sin? By sending his own son, the Savior. And in today’s Gospel, this savior enters the wilderness of our sin and its consequences, a zone of death, to fight for us. It is a wilderness full of beasts and angels, the best and the worst of our human race. It is planet earth, laid waste by broken families, violent streets, blasphemous language, drugs and alcohol, infidelities and brutality of every sort, but also graced with the lives of saints like John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Jesus goes into the desert to rescue the beasts and make them into angels.
Noah’s built an ark, under God’s direction: a mighty ship that would save his family from the dark waters. The ark is a life raft, prefiguring the Church herself. Anyone inside this Ark, the Church, is safe, but anyone outside will drown. Jesus is the captain of this Ark, and the Ark is Our Lady. She is the great Ark of the Covenant who bears Christ within her. She guides us to Christ, and He guides us to the Father.
Our Parish Mission next week will focus on Our Lady, Ark of the Covenant, and Jesus, the divine presence in that Ark. He is always within her. The closer we draw to Mary, the closer we draw to Jesus inside of her. There is no authentic devotion or life in Christ that ignores or disowns his mother, Mary.
I have been giving retreats to Mother Teresa’s sisters around the world for most of my priesthood. My three talks will be from those I give to the sisters, adapted for the parish. The first will tells the story of Mother Teresa’s life and her significance in the 20th Century. We will discover her devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Holy Rosary. The second will be the first two mysteries of the rosary, the Annunciation and the Visitation. And the third talk will be on the Great Sign of Revelation 12: the Ark of the Covenant, which shows us the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I will tell some stories from my work with her in 1997 and my friends’ experiences with her. We will show a little bit of her life on a video.
I hope you can come. It will be each evening at 7pm. I will preach in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and do benediction at the end. There is wonderful grace in simply coming to a mission, because it is God’s will that we do this during Lent. Confessions will follow each talk. Each evening is self-contained, so even if you can’t make all three, I encourage you to come to one or two. But for those who make all three, I will grant a plenary indulgence.
Let us pray to Our Lady now in the words of Mother Teresa:
Mary, Mother of Jesus, give me your heart,
so beautiful, so pure, so immaculate,
so full of love and humility,
that I may be able to receive Jesus in the Bread of Life,
love Him as you loved Him,
and serve Him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.
Lent is a time to restore what has fallen into disrepair over the past year. Certainly the American Family has fallen into disrepair and needs a good bit of shoring up. Lent is an excellent time to strengthen our families by shared prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Return to praying the family rosary this Lent; enter the adventure of family fasting, especially on Fridays (“OK, everyone, we will not be having desert for the next forty days!”); learn to cultivate family almsgiving, guiding every child to give some gift to God from his or her allowance on Sunday.
The California Family, in particular, needs strengthening. Our State is only as good as our families. This week after Masses I am asking all parishioners to consider signing a petition to get the Parental Notification Initiative (PNI) on the November ballot.
What is the PNI? It is a change in our state law that would require a doctor to notify an “unemancipated minor” girl’s parents 48 hours before she undergoes an abortion. We are only asking that the doctor inform her parents, not obtain consent. California does 25% of all abortions in this country; 20,000 a year are on underage girls. While most states have laws requiring parental notification, we do not. This means that even a ten-year-old girl can undergo a surgical abortion without her parents’ knowledge. The same girl cannot receive an aspirin from a school nurse, go on a field trip, get her ears pierced, or enter a tanning booth without parental permission, but a doctor can perform a surgical abortion on her without her parents’ knowledge. Many such girls get pregnant through rape, but under current law her parents are not allowed to know or help her. PNI has lost twice in the past ten years, largely due to the millions spent by Planned Parenthood on TV advertising. But this year Bay Area Planned Parenthood, for example, is bankrupt. Let’s pull together to restore loving protection for our children through their own parents. You may sign a petition in the plaza, and take more home for other signatures.
Homily: Spiritual Paralysis
In today’s Gospel, the man was paralyzed, helpless. He could not move. He was completely dependent on others. Have you ever been laid up, and had to gratefully depend on the care of your friends? We learn to love each other so much more deeply when we surrender ourselves to another’s care, or surrender ourselves to caring for another. Illness can be a beautiful means of receiving divine love.
The man was paralyzed, and his friends brought him to Jesus. They couldn’t get through crowds around the door, so they climbed up on the roof, broke a hole in it, and lowered him down with ropes. “When Jesus saw their faith”—not only “his” faith, but the faith of the man’s friends, he said to the paralytic: “My child, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus goes straight to the root problem: the man’s sins. His real problem was not physical paralysis, but the spiritual paralysis that binds all men and women.
Last night the musician Tony Melendez gave a concert here in Modesto. He was born without arms, but he plays the guitar with his toes and sings so beautifully. Tony radiates joy, despite or even perhaps because of his disability. A man does not need perfect physical health to be happy. That is a lie of the “supermodel culture.” In fact, physical gifts can lead to great sadness—poor Whitney Houston, for example. She began singing Gospel music in her church choir, but the world twisted her gifts, seduced her, and led her to a bitter end. A growing spiritual paralysis eventually killed her.
Jesus reconciled the man
Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter. “My Child, your sins are forgiven.” This is the only word we need to hear to be truly happy: that whatever we’ve done or not done in our lives, God is greater than our failures. He will reconcile us if we trust him. This is the “word” that Jesus was preaching—“many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, and he preached the word to them.” This is the word that draws out the human heart, and draws immense crowds. This is real healthcare.
True Health Care
A word about the healthcare debate between the Church and the current presidential administration. (Please take a bulletin home, because it includes an important insert from our Bishops on this issue.) The most vital healthcare Americans need is not contraception or access to all sorts of pharmaceuticals. The real healthcare we need is for our souls, because America is sick at its soul.
A secular government is promising all sorts of Band-Aids for our national paralysis—limitless access to sexual intercourse, countless free drugs and pharmaceuticals, and a towering debt to pay for it all. But only Jesus addresses the real problem: we lack God’s grace. We must turn to a power higher than the government.
The HHS mandate in question is not really about contraception, although the administration wants to frame it in those terms. The Mandate is really about an executive branch of government that seeks utter control even over our consciences. It cannot tolerate a power higher than itself. It wants to erase any faith-based activity from the public square; it wants to restrict the people’s faith to private churches. The Mandate would drive Catholic hospitals and universities—indeed, any conscience-based activity—out of business. It is an old problem, but we are facing it anew.
Our national paralysis is becoming obvious. A stubborn economic paralysis depresses America; political gridlock frustrates collaboration among rival parties. The battle is not about healthcare or about the economy or about politics. The battle is over America’s soul. We have turned our backs on God. Are we willing to turn back to a power higher than the government, or do we somehow hope that the congress, the presidential administration, and the courts can solve our conflicts? We are truly a conflicted nation at this time, and it is causing a persistent paralysis of our national energies.
Lent begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. The word “Lent” means springtime in Old English, and every springtime is a new beginning. We enter into Lent with true hope: that God will help us conquer our addictions and overcome our paralysis. The first reading from Isaiah speaks this hope: “Remember not the things of the past—see, I am doing something new!” God gives us another day, another chance, another Lent. We can regain our innocence; we can recover the joy of our youth. Make a plan for Lent now: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Give yourself to Jesus this Lent through resolute acts of love and sacrifice. And put it all into the immaculate hands of our Blessed Mother.
Jesus healed people, and only the Church can heal and protect the dignity of every human person in our nation. We cannot look to the Government to heal our cultural ills. Our nation needs the Church as much or more than it needs the government. After all, America was founded by pilgrims feeling government oppression, to establish a country where citizens could practice their faith free of government control. They made this the very first amendment of our bill of rights.
I was an English Major in College, and so the misuse of words is particularly irritating. Take, for example, the overuse of the word “awesome.” Thanks be to God this word is fading from popular usage, but five years ago absolutely everything was described as “awesome.” But of course only One is Awesome — only God and the things of God inspire “awe.” To describe her new shoes or the way he washed the dishes as “awesome” reduces the sense of authentic awe, and Him who inspires true awe.
As I say, the misuse of “awesome” is fading, but the misuse of another word is on the ascendant. That word is “incredible.” This adjective is used to describe anything that impresses the speaker. For example, “the performance last night was incredible,” or “she has assembled this incredible staff.” The 2004 animated movie about superheroes with attitude (The Incredibles) didn’t help matters. But what does “incredible” actually mean? It means non-credible — unbelievable. If someone says that my homily was “incredible,” they are saying that it is not believable — they don’t buy a word of it — hardly a compliment!
I think the overuse of the word “incredible” tells us something. It tells us that “credibility,” belief, is on the wane. People are saying that just about everything is “incredible,” and not by accident. People find many more things “non-credible” today than they did 40 years ago. We don’t believe in our members of Congress, our President, our heads of respected corporations, even our priests and bishops.
To all this “unbelief,” we Catholics say, Credo. “I believe.” Our faith is not in man or things human, but in God. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. I believe in the Passion, Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that God lives, and lives in each of us. Let’s keep a good Lent, insisting that there is still room for belief in the world.
The Mission of Healing
Bishop’s Ministry Appeal
This Sunday we are invited to make a gift to the Bishop for his work and to support the work of our Diocese. It is Bishop’s Ministry Appeal Sunday.
The Scriptures today speak mainly about leprosy. Leviticus is very clear: anyone with the highly contagious and incurable disease of leprosy had to “dwell apart” and could not touch or be touched by anyone. To be separated, abandoned, by every other human person—to be utterly deprived of the warmth of human touch—is the worst kind of poverty. So in the Gospel, Jesus touches the man you’re not supposed to touch. “Moved with compassion” (Jesus felt the pain this man felt) “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” He restored the man’s dignity by touching him, by showing him understanding love.
The Mission of Healing
Why will many of us make financial gifts to the Bishop’s Appeal this Sunday? It is so that Jesus can touch the untouchables through the work of the Church. The BMA provides for things like the sisters, who bring the human touch of compassion to nearby migrant labor camps; it subsidizes poorer Catholic schools like St. George’s in South Stockton for children who could never afford a quality education; it funds the training of new priests who otherwise would not be able to afford the eight years of seminary. It provides for sisters and priests who will lay a healing hand on a modern-day leper, such as a poor immigrant family, or a forgotten grandmother in a nursing home, or a young man in one of our prisons.
Help the Church do her mission of healing
Jesus healed people. Only the Church can heal our national ills. Only the Church can fully safeguard the dignity of every human person in America. We cannot look to the Government to do this. A few years ago, someone asked President Obama when he thought human life began. He famously quipped that it was “above his pay grade.” He was absolutely right: it is not the government’s role or competency to address issues of theology, philosophy, or the deeper questions of the human person. This is the role and competency of the churches, those who train their minds on broader horizons than the government. A healthy America needs her churches, and needs a government that guarantees those churches the freedom to do what they do best. The government cannot possibly “touch” individuals with the warmth of a Mother Teresa; it cannot provide the human care that small faith-based groups regularly provide to the homeless, the incarcerated, the elderly.
Your annual gift to the BMA, like your weekly gift to the parish, provides for this good work. 25 years ago, folks like you and I gave to the Bishop’s Ministry Appeal, and that’s how I was able to become a priest. I give to the BMA every year if for nothing else than to give something back for my seminary education, and to help pay for another young man’s seminary training. Let’s all give something, simply because our Bishop has asked us for help, for the good of our Church, for the good of our country.
40 Days For Life: Many prayers, candles and
signs outside of the abortion
clinic in Modesto.
There is an accelerating “climate change” in our country. In particular, Religious Freedom in America is eroding faster than the glaciers in Greenland. The founders of our nation saw the need to immediately strengthen our Constitution with the “Bill of Rights.” The first of those Bill of Rights is the free exercise of religion. This First Amendment guarantees citizens the free practice of the faith of their choice, without the interference of the U.S. Government.
Two weeks ago the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandated that all employers will purchase insurance that provides sterilization and contraception, including abortion-causing drugs. That means that our parish, for example, will have to pay for the chemical abortions of our employees, should they request it. Catholic hospitals will have to provide for abortions. In a meeting with pastors last week, Bishop Blaire stated forcefully that the Obama Administration’s decision is “an egregious—an egregious—violation of the Constitution and the First Amendment.” Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Coercing religious ministries and citizens to pay directly for actions that violate their teaching is an unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience…. This latest erosion of our first freedom should make all Americans pause. When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead.” As of this writing (February 1), 125 bishops and many other public figures of our nation have joined him in strong objection.
Which way America? What freedoms of conscience will the government still permit us in the years to come? How much more will the Church be singled out for persecution? In 2010, Cardinal George of Chicago spoke these prophetic words: "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square." Which way, America?
Homily: I have come to serve
When I was ordained to the diaconate in December 1990, the Bishop called us each by name. “Why have you come to this place?” Each of us stood up in turn and said: “I have come to serve.” [In fact, the word “Deacon” in Greek means “one who serves.”] I have to remember those words, uttered in New York 22 years ago, when I’m tired of people and just want to be left alone in my room. All of us are happiest when we help others; we are hard wired for the stewardship of service.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is weary of the crowds and just wanted to get away by himself. The previous day the “whole town was gathered at his door.” Everyone wanted a free cure, he must’ve been exhausted. You have had days like that, perhaps, when everyone needs you to do something for them. So the next day Jesus gets up very early and goes alone to a deserted place to pray. But soon enough Peter and the others found him, and said “everyone is looking for you.” Jesus simply says, “let us go…for this purpose I have come.” He had taken his time for prayer, and now it was time to get back to work. “Prayer and work,” the rhythm of any Christian life. Mother Teresa expressed this beautifully on the little cards she would give out: “Prayer is the fruit of silence; faith is the fruit of prayer; love is the fruit of faith; service is the fruit of love.” Prayer leads us to serve others. A Christian who prays but does not serve is kind of a dud, a “failure to launch.”
Jesus cures Peter’s mother in law, and immediately she “waited on them.” And St. Paul in the second reading: “I have been entrusted with a stewardship.” Yes, each of us has been entrusted with a stewardship. In the first reading, Job complains that he cannot sleep at night, that his life is a misery. He is suffering from a long-term situational depression. Many of us go through dark periods when just getting out of bed is the greatest struggle. We’ve lost any reason to get up. That’s when we’ve got to recall those words: “I have come to serve.” Jesus calls me out of bed, even after a sleepless night, to serve the world with Him. Get up, the sun is rising, and Jesus is with us!
400,000 (mostly young) people marched through Washington a few weeks ago. 40,000 (mostly young) people marched through San Francisco a few weeks ago, again to witness to the sanctity of every human life. A young lady who had been at World Youth Day in Madrid last year told me that the Walk for Life had that same joyful, hopeful spirit. These massive gatherings of the world’s youth are not at all like the angry, destructive “Occupy” crowds. Pro-life youth seek to build, not tear down. Young people, especially Catholic young people, beautifully testify to the joy of living the virtue of hope. And so the Prolife Movement is characterized by youthful hope and joy.
The Culture of Death, driven by “old” men and women who have turned from God and so lost their hope, seeks to strangle youthful joy. It seeks to convince young people, especially, that life is essentially irrational and random, and we cannot hope to ever reach the truth about anything. The Pope has called this the “Dictatorship of Relativism,” which proclaims that there is no such thing as truth.
Death’s Culture forces its darkness into our children’s lives through the media, university and school curricula, and even through state law. For example, did you know that California law prohibits a 12-year-old girl’s parents from knowing that she is pregnant and seeking an abortion? The law, in other words, does not support a parent’s right to protect his or her own daughter from sexual abuse and the trauma of abortion. But a girl’s parents are her best hope to protect her youthful freedom and joy in a culture that encourages predators. It is simply irrational to deny a girl this fundamental right to her parents’ support.
A grassroots campaign to change that law, called the Parental Notification Initiative, is in the works. On a Sunday to come, you will have a chance to sign a petition to get this initiative on the November ballot.