A new student greets College President Dr. Michael
McLean and Bishop Kevin Vann at the opening of
the academic year.
On Monday our College President opened the new academic year, presiding over the entire student body with full faculty and staff. Academic regalia fluttered from the shoulders of the assembled faculty, and a robust wooden mace resting before the President’s podium lent the proper gravity. The teachers at Thomas Aquinas College refer to themselves as “tutors” rather than professors, more in the way of “coaches” rather than perfect athletes. They thus declare that everyone in this academic community is a lifelong student exercising the gift for wonder, aspiring to rather than possessing Truth and Beauty.
One hundred and three freshmen sat facing us. In their demeanor, their dress, and their speech, they seemed truly la crème de la crème of Catholic college students. How blessed are the parents of such children! Yet their parents have entrusted them and their formation to Thomas Aquinas College. If they are Catholics, they have particularly entrusted them to the four priests of the College. Facing such an array of eager, intelligent, and potentially excellent young people, we rejoiced in the privilege of contributing to their intellectual and spiritual development.
What strikes one in a Catholic college is the presence of the priest, and we have four of them at TAC. Students turn to their teachers as mentors, as kind and wise aunts and uncles, but they turn unabashedly to their priests as “fathers.” Priests do not find this “spiritual fatherhood” easy (many feel uncomfortable in being called “father” or wearing their priestly garb), but we do find it compelling. I recall the story of Sir Alec Guinness, as recounted in the London Guardian thirteen years ago: “Guinness's conversion to Roman Catholicism followed an episode in France during the 1954 filming of Father Brown, in which he was GK Chesterton's cheery cleric-cum-detective. Walking back in the dark to the station hotel, and still wearing his cassock, his hand was seized by a small boy, a complete stranger, who called him "Mon père" and trotted along beside him, chatting in French.” I myself just spent two weeks in Haiti, where complete strangers greeted me every day with “Bonjour, mon père!” They believe in our fatherhood.
Like most young men, I wanted to get married and have many children. My plan was to be a forest ranger and live in a Little House in the Big Woods with my family (I had read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books). Now it’s been 22 years since I vowed celibacy “for the sake of the Kingdom.” As we opened the College year on Monday, that Kingdom again opened up before me. A beautiful garden of young people looked at their priests and tutors with expectation. They will call their priests “father.” Dare I call them “children?” Priests used to address their Sunday congregations as “my dearest sons and daughters;” now priests less confidently say only “my brothers and sisters.” At some point in our lives, we priests must begin calling people “my beloved children” without embarrassment. An “elder” can call another man’s son or daughter “his” child, but the tricky thing is that even a 25-year-old man, once ordained, is an “elder” (presbyter in Greek, meaning “old man). At 51, I feel significantly closer to “elder status” than I did at 29. Still, spiritual fatherhood is such a wonderful grace that I can scarcely believe in it. But believe in it I do. May God supply what I lack, that I may be a good father to these students.
Welcome, and Welcome Back
We welcome our 103 Freshmen students to our College, and all our returning students. More than perhaps any other institution of higher learning in this country, Thomas Aquinas is a true Col-ledge, all of us in a common life of study, work, and prayer. “College” means to lodging with, with one another and with God, our only Master. Let us hope we are willing and ready learners. Tomorrow Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange County and our College President, Dr. McLean, will con-voke, that is, call us together, to begin our academic year. May God send his Holy Spirit to inspire and direct us over these next nine months.
Hell exists and we must not go there
Does hell exist, and if so, how many will go there? This is my “leading question” from the Scripture texts this Sunday. (Here at the Thomas Aquinas you must be ready for the “leading question” that begins every class.) Someone asked Jesus: “will only a few be saved?” Some religions declare that only 144,000 will be saved (an interpretation of Revelation 7). Jesus does not give a number or a percentage, but he does say that the gate is narrow. “Many, I tell you, will try to enter and not be strong enough.” We must take seriously these sobering words of the Son of God. Yes, there is a hell, an abyss into which drop—in eternal wails of despair—those who are not “strong enough.” What will you do, Jesus asks, when you see so many others in the Kingdom and “you yourselves cast out”? I can remember getting back from work one night when I was 21 years old only to find that all of my friends had gone to dinner without me. A dreadful darkness overcame me that I can still taste 30 years later. The most dreadful pain is abandonment, because we are essentially relational, with no identity apart from our relationships with others. The absolute abandonment of hell is a real possibility for everyone in this room, and we must not end up there.
Heaven exists and we must get there
How many will end up in hell? In the weak and watery Christianity of our time, very few think that a loving God would send anyone to hell. Everyone goes to heaven, right? Wrong. Jesus says, repeatedly, that the road to hell is broad and easy, and that many go that way. Our Lord doesn’t say how many will be saved or damned; he says only that we must “strive” for heaven. Because if hell exists, heaven exists too, and we must get there. Everything in this life must be focused on attaining heaven; every activity of the Church—all the time, money, and energy the Catholic Church as spent over 2000 years—is all for saving souls. Jesus urges us to “strive” to enter the narrow gate. No one in this chapel is “strong enough” to attain heaven without God’s grace, but he does not hand paradise to us on a silver platter. He wants us to strive, to work for it.
“Whom he loves God disciplines”
Like a good father, God helps us in our striving. He gives us faith and hope and love, “infused” virtues, the exercise of which push us inch by inch toward heaven. But God’s graces are not always pleasant. We also need strong medicine to overcome our damnable frailty caused by original sin. “My son,” God says in the second reading, “do not disdain my disciplines.” He sends us suffering and pain to strengthen us for the life’s contests. The US Marines put it like this: “pain is weakness leaving the body.”
It is true that suffering breaks some people. They allow life’s tragedies to crush them: I have seen many lose their faith, and their joy, over the death of a son, or a divorce, or a bout with cancer. But others grow even stronger, more beautiful and more virtuous, when they undergo adversity. “Strengthen your weak knees” the Bible tells us. “Steady your drooping hands.” When someone or something knocks you down, get up, or crawl if you must, to the chapel. Cast yourself not on the mercy of this world, but throw yourself into the arms of God’s mercy. You will survive the blow, and grow stronger for it. Yes, strong enough, when your time comes, to enter the narrow gate, and to recline at table with God and his friends. We have a seat in that glorious communion of saints, but only we can decide to accept it or not.
That Col-lege of saints in heaven is why we come to this College on earth. Every bit of work or study or prayer we do at Thomas Aquinas should benefit our soul and the souls of others. Let’s work, let’s strive this year, under the special inspiration of Our Lady, to draw that much closer to God and his kingdom.
Jaques Paul gives the sidewalk at the
MC retreat center in Haiti a
good morning sweep
Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from a retreat for about 30 Missionaries of Charity. The sisters run an orphanage for 110 children, which American and European couples adopt on a continuous basis. Last week a husband and wife from Minnesota were finishing up a three-year process to adopt “Evanston,” a boy of about ten, black as coal with a flashing white smile. People drop orphans off at the convent gate all the time, and sometimes just bring their sick children if they can’t find a doctor. Yesterday Sr. Mahrte (a French sister who has been in the Caribbean for 25 years) showed me the orphans, tiny little ones reaching up from their cribs to clutch a finger, and bigger ones who all wanted the big white man (in a black shirt) to hoist them into the air for an airplane ride. The sisters go about the City as well, bringing food, helping the MC Brothers at their home for the dying, picking dead and dying people off the streets, and managing a small hospital of their own. Sr. Joie, another French MC, whose name precisely describes her buoyant spirit, excitedly showed me the little Montessori school for the orphans. They also use the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, with a toy church, altar, sheep pen, and of course a Noah’s Ark. “Oui, mon Pere,” she gesticulated excitedly, “we teach les petits all about La Sainte Messe with pictures, before they can even read!”
The compound is quite large, perched on the edge of a foul stream whose maliferous odors, thanks be to God, never seem to overcome the convent buildings. It is quite a garden inside the convent walls, with abundant banana trees, shady grape arbors, spreading coconut palms, ponderous mangos, fiery acacias, citrus, rhododendron, various flowering shrubs, and luxuriant ferns. A menagerie of domesticated animals wanders the grounds as well: two hounds, about a dozen noisy turkeys, skinny cats beyond number, roosters and hens, clicking-clacking geckos, and bunches of white rabbits (the latter confined to warrens, and taken out occasionally for lunches and dinners). It is quite a little community of flora and fauna!
With so much animal and plant life, and the MC love of order and cleanliness, the sisters and their three or four Haitian helpers sweep down the entire place every day. That means someone is sweeping somewhere at any given time. I wake up at 6am to the sound of the old gardener quietly sweeping the patio outside my room. During Mass at 7am one of the ladies sweeps around the chapel. From where I give my retreat conferences I can see one of the drivers sweeping around the magnolia trees. During holy hour I can hear the sweep sweep coming from somewhere. They always sweep in silence, patiently, almost as an act of prayer.
And you know what I have not heard in Port-au-Prince yet? The garrulous growl of a leaf blower. I suppose they can’t afford them, or don’t like them, or prefer to quietly, methodically sweep sweep away. As I write this I can see the old gardener loping past my window, a broom and basket in hand. This is something I love about Haiti, and most “less developed” cultures. They love cleanliness and order as much as we do, but they enjoy the act cleaning, naturally, the way a cat takes time to lick itself down, or a bird arranges its nest, or a bee colony carefully puts everything in order.
Leaf blowers, as I have always said, are from the devil!
The Prince of Peace
Jesus is the Prince of Peace, as the prophet Isaiah named him. “Peace I leave with you; peace is my farewell gift to you” Jesus said just before his Passion.
In the United States a Basketball star has named himself “Meta World Peace.” I suppose he took that name in hopes of promoting “world peace.” But, like many rich and famous people, and many of the rest of us, he lives his life mostly as if God did not exist. And therefore his dream of “world peace” is simply illusory: there is no real peace outside of God’s will.
Not as the World gives Peace do I give Peace
So Jesus, the Prince of Peace, declares in today’s Gospel that he has come, not to establish peace, but to bring division (“the sword,” in another translation). He means that he has not come to establish “world peace,” the peace of this world, for he says clearly in another place, “in the world you will have no peace.” And again, as he gives his farewell gift of peace, he says “not as the world gives it do I give you peace.”
When we shake each other’s hands in the Mass and say “peace be with you,” we are not to give worldly peace. In fact, the priest specifically says “the peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all,” not simply “peace be with you.” The ungainly exercise that we see on most Sundays at the “kiss of peace”—people flashing “peace signs” at each other with big grins, chatting noisily in worldly greetings, slapping each other on the back with a loud “peace, Joey!”—this is not what the Holy Spirit has in mind for the sacred liturgy. This kind of glad-handing is less the peace of Christ and more the banal “peace” of this world, more proper to Wal-Mart than the Holy Mass.
Not Peace but the Sword
True peace comes with the growing conviction that God exists and that he loves mankind. Jesus has come to set a fire on the earth, the fire of Divine Love. He burns in anguish to accomplish that baptism of fire, which he will indeed accomplish on the Cross: he will win the peace through a violent death, surrendering to His Father’s will: “It is accomplished.” True peace is accomplished often, in our disordered world, by accepting unavoidable violence with God’s grace. Jeremiah suffers violence in the First Reading because he obeys God rather than men; he speaks the truth that the princes do not want to hear. They throw him into a cistern, and even though he is rescued, Jeremiah will eventually die a martyr’s death for following God. In the second reading, we are told to run the race, to “cast off any encumbrance of sin” that slows us down, to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, pushing through fire and water if necessary to reach the “perfector of our faith.” True peace, true joy, is running toward Jesus, letting nothing and nobody slow us down.
Know Jesus, Know Peace
Yes, Jesus has come to bring peace, but his peace is often purchased at the cost of division. His peace is a conflagration of love, the violence of God’s passion for man. It is quite different from the “world peace” that so many imagine can be attained apart from God’s law. No government has been able to attain “world peace,” and yet every true Christian, even though besieged by adversity and violence, has Christ’s peace in their hearts and homes. The bumper sticker says it quite concisely: “Know Jesus, Know Peace; No Jesus, No Peace.”
Market in Cumana, Venezuela
I’m [still] in a little pueblo in Venezuela, giving a retreat to 25 Missionaries of Charity sisters.
As I sit in the little priest room, just off the chapel, waiting for penitents, I gaze out into an open field on the other side of the convent wall. The grass is high, and a few Acacia trees with bright orange flowers wave in the sultry breeze. There are paths through the grass, and people are walking through it. In fact, people are walking all over this little village of Marin. It’s not the price of gas—as far as I can make out, gasoline is 12 cents a gallon here (we filled up our little car for less than a buck).
People walk here in Venezuela. Of course there are cars (most of them ancient gas-guzzling Chevys and Fords, with thudding mufflers and wheezing engines). I haven’t seen so many boats (ponderous LTD Wagons and expansive Pontiac Montegos and of course the famous shiplike Galaxies) plying the streets since my boyhood. But the folks are walking—to and from the store, meandering about to check in on friends, strolling to work, and even children (gasp) walking home from school. They seem to enjoy it, and it seems to agree with them. It’s a delight, actually, to see them just ambulating everywhere, like people should. God gave us two legs and two feet. We are a naturally perambulatory species.
In California, and might I say especially in Los Angeles, it’s a disgrace to walk to the grocery store. It means you can’t afford a car. The streets of the USA are expressly not made for walking. We have more sidewalks than the rest of the world combined (I’ll wager) but we rarely use them. In Venezuela they walk on dirt paths, in the middle of the road, and on broken and crumbling relics of sidewalks. Socrates and his peripatetic philosophers walked. Jesus walked all over Galilee. St. Thomas Aquinas used to sing the Veni Creator Spiritus hymn as he walked to school. The pioneers walked from St. Louis to San Francisco, strolling beside their Conestoga wagons. I used to walk two miles to my elementary school every day (until Mom and Dad bought me a banana-seat bike for my birthday).
We could all do with a little more walking, and walking in the presence others, social strolling, shall we say. They still do it in third world countries, and I could sit here all day, just watching people come and go. It restores my faith in humanity.
"Rumbo al Socialismo del siglo XXI"
Towards Socialism in the 21st century
I’m in a little pueblo in Venezuela, giving a retreat to 25 Missionaries of Charity sisters (or rather, I hope that Jesus is giving the retreat to all 26 of us). I escaped the convent complex the other day for a brisk walk through the town with hopes of finding a path into the mountains. At the end of the road, I met the farmers Rigoberto and Edgar, who showed me a path up into the dense forest. Most folks along my way through town didn’t return my hearty renditions of ola! and buenas tardes! They regarded me oddly and remained silent, but the farmers accepted my gringo accent and American attire (REI hiking shorts and a bright orange cycling jersey). Their honest faces reflected the honest earth for which they cared. Rigoberto gracefully led me to the upper cow pasture (they have eleven bovines), and from there I began hiking up the dry arroyo under towering jungle trees and impenetrable banks of leafy vegetation.
I wondered if my newfound farmer friends were “Chavistas.” Hugo Chavez’ grinning face and upthrust arm appear on almost every wall and billboard, with the words “Yes, there is a revolution!” He died in April, but like Vladimir Lenin, he seems determined to preside over his country even from the grave. His hand-picked successor’s face (Senor Maduro) also appears on election posters everywhere, even though the election took place three months ago. The slogan is canned and never varies: “I swear to you, Chavez, that I will vote for Maduro.” I heard it was a close race, but I’ve not seen one trace of the opposition. I guess there is no opposition. Meanwhile, Venezuela, after a decade of socialist government, and sitting atop fountains of petroleum, is still depressingly poor.
Venezuela languishes in the grip of socialism the way America languishes in the grip of consumerism. “The Party” dominates every public venue and every bit of the national imagination. Hugo Chavez dominates Venezuelan billboards like Taco Bell dominates billboards in the USA. Even the rarely-seen ad for a restaurant or hotel will have “we stand with Chavez” on the bottom—and his grinning face. Just when I thought I could not take one more depiction of Hugo’s grinning visage, I turned a corner and saw, painted on a wall two blocks from the convent, a sex ad. Actually, it seemed to be government promotion for Sex and Birth Control training, complete with some crude drawings (Hugo’s face did not make an appearance).
It became blazingly clear to me: birth control is all about control. Of course, we all knew that. But what I realized is that contraception is about government control. What stronger leash can the government tie around people’s throats than control of their sexual appetites? “Careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power [contraception] passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law….” Who wrote that? Pope Paul VI wrote it 45 years ago, in Humanae vitae #17. For a citizenry addicted to sex-on-demand, government-sponsored birth control programs wield immense power, power to shape society into its own image and likeness. It has only to convince its citizens that birth control means that they control their sex life, when in fact folks accustomed to sex-on-demand cannot control themselves. In steps the government to help bring a little control into the situation. Soviet Russia famously did away with religious sexual disciplines and began doling out free birth control and abortion. Within a generation of state-controlled family life, society began to unravel.
The Venezuelan government’s control of its citizens is crass and obvious. Every two or three miles on the main roads cars must slow down for a “government inspection,” a quick review by scowling soldiers wielding machine guns. The U.S. government’s control of its citizens is less obvious, and less advanced, but certainly using some of the same techniques. Forcing birth control programming into national health care is certainly one of those strategies.
I don’t know whether my farmer friends are Chavistas or not. I don’t know whether they have bought into the government’s birth control plan, or whether they have kept true to their Catholic faith (I assume they are Catholic because, when I identified myself as a Catholic priest, they smiled broadly and offered me two big lemons from their trees). I don’t know whether these two farmers are still believers in God, or whether they have given up God for the government. I’ll have to ask them on my next hike, but I suspect that honest people in this beautiful country trust God, and His laws, more than Hugo Chavez’s socialist government. Let’s try to keep “In God We Trust” part of the American dream.
Yes, it is true that I did not post a commentary last Wednesday. A nice lady after Sunday Mass gently reproached me for omitting it. “The Sunday homilies are OK, but a little solemn,” she observed. “I look forward to the mid-week social commentary.” I could plead that we are in the midst of our High School Summer Program, with a record number of participants (136), all brimming with wit and energy and availing themselves of chaplains’ services. I could further plead that I broke my wrist last week (the mountain bike blues) and have been bouncing from doctor to doctor for ten days (surgery on Wednesday). To make matters even more difficult, I leave on Thursday for the Missionaries of Charity in Venezuela, where one finds no internet. Besides, even if I had access, my laptop screen exploded yesterday. How is modern man to survive in South America without a computer?
So the next three weeks seem uncertain. But I will offer this observation for those who anticipate some midweek commentary. Having shattered my poor left arm in the aforesaid cycle accident, I found myself in the Santa Paula hospital in search of an X-ray. I peeked into a waiting room that was replete with nervous women waiting for husbands or sons, or their own turn at surgery. One particularly demonstrative lady gave a shout. “A priest! I feel better just looking at you.” I gave her a blessing, and she, all smiles, pointed me towards radiology. (I must say as well that the radiologist—a nice chap named Arturo—also seemed happy enough to have a priest in his care, and told me all about his parish in Oxnard).
I’m glad I wore my clerical garb. Priests wonder if wearing clerics is worth the effort. Some say the black shirt and roman collar throws up a barrier between priest and people. Some say it smacks of clericalism. Some say Vatican II urged priests to get out of the rectory and among the people, and that it did, but dressed as priests. A man of the cloth, after all, should wear the cloth. Folks are so happy to see Jesus and his priests popping their heads into the waiting rooms of life. If they have a right to a policeman dressed as a policeman, and a limo driver dressed in livery, they certainly have a right to a priest dressed as a priest. Is it too much for the people of God to ask of us, who are fed, clothed, and housed by their loving generosity? Is it too much for Jesus to ask of us?