Reminder: Debt enslaves

I was watching a documentary about the Fyre music festival debacle and subsequent fallout. Among all of the other massive moral failings, most notably fraud piled on top of fraud, with a large helping of arrogance and pride on the side, was a more subtle re-occurring theme: The promoters had no way out once they got the ball rolling due to the debt they had incurred.

Basically, they had a vision for a large music festival and they went about promoting it and organizing it. Somewhere along the line they realized they were unlikely to be able to deliver on what they were promising. Depending on who you believe, this was somewhere between 6 months and 2 months from the start of the event.

And of course the ethical thing to do at that point is to call off the event and refund all of the money for the tickets sold. The problem was the money was already at least partly spent. They had leased property and bought all sorts of materials, as well as had many laborers and subcontractors working for months to prepare for the event.

Thus if they had called off the event, someone who was owed money wasn’t going to be paid. Whether it be not refunding the tickets or not paying for the materials and salaries, or even some of both, they just didn’t have the money to meet all of their financial commitments. Someone was going to be shorted.

As a result, even when the organizers had grudgingly come to realize they couldn’t successfully hold the event, they couldn’t admit it to themselves. The only solution was to find a miracle that would save the event. If they could somehow pull it off, even if it was much less than promised, the ticket money wouldn’t have to be refunded and they could pay all of their people.

In other words, they were enslaved by their debts. They had no choice to walk away. They had to push forward, even though at some deep level they were marching towards their own demise.

I think we all need to be more aware of this… the way that debt enslaves. Whether it is a large mortgage, a car that is hard for us to afford, or our credit card bills, they force us into behavior we otherwise wouldn’t do. How many people keep working for an unethical company because they can afford to quit, because of the debts they owe? How many people make career choices they otherwise wouldn’t because of their debt, particularly their college debt?

We all must be much more careful about incurring debt. If we want the freedom to follow Christ, we must have the financial freedom to do so. Yes, we need to earn enough money to live and that can at times limit our financial freedom. But for someone truly committed to service, it is amazing how little one can live on. And at any point in our lives we can choose to live much more frugally if we feel called to some sort of service by God. But we are robbed of that freedom if we have debt.

Even if we can afford our debt service based on our current careers and income, we are prevented from changing away from those careers and income levels because there is debt to be paid that relies on that level of income. We become a slave to our current lifestyle.

If you don’t have debt, I ask you to seriously consider the above before incurring it. If you are already in that trap, the good news is it is merely an indentured servitude and I encourage you to make the changes needed in your financial lifestyle necessary so as to be able to pay off that debt as quickly as possible.

Because the simple fact remains, you are not truly free the way God wants you to be free as long as you are in debt.

Tell the kids: Vocations are careers

I just got back from a parish vocations committee meeting. We are always trying to find ways to encourage priestly and religious vocations. Our pastor was talking in the meeting about how we can encourage vocations at ages younger than most of us think.

That reminded me of something that constantly surprises me. When the issue of vocations comes up around the parish, I often mention that the easiest way to get a child thinking about a vocation is to include it in the list of potential careers children might consider. Put it there right next to doctor, lawyer, engineer, mechanic, business manager, teacher and what have you. Priest or nun belong in that list.

What is very disappointing and very surprising to me is how much that suggestion is often considered very surprising. “I’ve never thought of doing that before!?!” That’s the most common response I hear. Seriously, 3 out of every 4 people respond that way. Like it’s some sort of massive revelation. It’s very disappointing, but it makes me want to shout it from the rooftops, because I think it really works.

I think there are three main reasons that parents and mentors don’t often talk about religious vocations with children:

  1. They actively think it’s a bad choice. There’s a number of different reasons for this. One is celibacy. They can’t imagine a life without sex being very enjoyable and so they assume the life of a priest or nun must be torture. This is getting worse the more sexually obsessed our culture becomes. Another is poverty. They are too attached to their materialistic lifestyle and they can’t imagine living a life of financial simplicity. A third is that they just don’t see holiness is all that appealing. They find their sins too enjoyable and couldn’t imagine a life without these indulgences.
  2. They don’t want to give the impression of “forcing” them into it. Just like there are people who become doctors or lawyers or engineers because their parents strongly encouraged them to do so, there are people who do the same thing with a religious career. There’s a tinge of #1 in this one as the same people who wouldn’t be so careful with over encouraging one towards being a doctor, would be very careful with the priesthood. Why? Because at a subtle level they imagine it’s not a very good life, particularly if one was forced down that path.
  3. They just in general don’t spend much time talking about religion, particularly with their kids. Our lives are very busy and unfortunately our faith too often ends up on the bottom of the list. I think this is particularly true for families. Children’s sports, extra-curricular activities and social groups will gladly take every waking moment of your life if you let them. All of them demand to be the top priority. Too often faith ends up at the bottom.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on #1 right now (as this post would get ridiculously long). But I think numbers 2 and 3 can both be partially solved just by making religious vocation part of the career discussions that go on in families.

Because almost all families find at least a little time to talk about careers. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is such a common question, it’s a cliche. Then of course there’s the “what colleges are you thinking about?” question. Introducing the idea of a seminary as a possibility could be part of that.

I don’t think it takes that much. As long as it’s part of the career discussion and the family regularly receives the sacraments, plus a little bit of prayer time… that’s all God needs to start calling someone to a life of service as a priest or nun. It doesn’t have to be over bearing for fear of #2. It can just be part of that natural discussion. It won’t take setting aside time like some ‘birds and the bees’ discussion that every parent loathes to find time for.

No, it’s just part of the natural growing up process and considering one’s career. I ask everyone to make it a part of any discussion they have with a child about future careers.

Who is hurt most by our sins?

I think a lot of the time we tend to think of sin in terms of how they hurt others. Depending on the person, they may think about how sin offends God and others may think about how our sins hurt other people. And of course this is true. Many of our sins hurt others and all of our sins are an affront to God.

But too often we overlook how our sins hurt ourselves. Even the sins that hurt others, hurt ourselves. But then there’s a whole class of sins that mostly just hurt ourselves.

I’m an over-weight man. I eat too much. I’m a habitual glutton. There’s no getting around it. And it hurts me constantly. I love backpacking and hiking. I love to sail. I love to ride my road bike around the region. But my ability to do those activities has been limited a bit in the last year because I put on a fair amount of weight. It’s been really disappointing to me because I had lost a lot of weight in the prior couple of years, but now I’ve gained all of it back.

But the specifics of my sins and struggles is not the point I’m trying to make. The bigger point I’m trying to discuss is how our sins enslave us. Every time we give in to them, we have less freedom, less control over our lives.

I think that’s one of the reasons Lent is so important. Lent is an opportunity for us to exercise control over temptations. At some level I don’t think it even matters if the temptations we master during Lent are the ones that most torture us. In fact, I could argue it is best if we don’t try to tackle our most difficult temptations.

Think about it. If you want accomplish something huge, you don’t start with the huge thing. No, that’s a recipe for failure. Instead we have to start small, with something we’re capable of. Then over time we can build up to what we have set our sights on.

So when we give up chocolate or soda for Lent, we’re making a first step towards mastery over our temptations. It may not be a big step, but it is something. And once we’ve built that skill (or re-established that skill), then later we will be more ready to tackle that larger thing in our life.

My overall point, and I’m saying this to myself just as much as to my readers, is don’t give up on mastery of your temptations. If you’ve failed at your larger Lenten disciplines, at your desire to turn your back on the worst of your temptations and bad habits, don’t give up! Perhaps what is needed right now is to return to something simple. Go back to chocolate or soda. Or if even that’s too much, find something even smaller. Something that you think you can stick to for the rest of Lent.

Then, after this Lent, perhaps you’ll be ready to take the next step.

Should we be canonizing so many Popes?

There was an interesting opinion piece arguing that the recent trend of canonizing so many popes needs to stop.

As a bit of a Pope history buff, it is an interesting historical note that up through the middle of the 6th century just about every Pope was made a saint. But then it started dropping off, notably after St. Pope Silverius. Up to that point 54 of the first 58 Popes had been canonized.

After that it started a slow decline. Here’s the breakdown by century:

  • 5th century (so pre-Silverius): 11 of 12
  • 6th century (Silverius’ century): 7 of 14
  • 7th century: 9 of 20
  • 8th century: 5 of 12
  • 9th century: 4 of 19
  • 10th century: 0 of 23
  • 11th century: 2 of 21

After St. Pope Gregory VII, who’s reign ended in 1085, so late 11th century, there were only two Popes whose reign was before the 20th century who were canonized:

  • St. Pope Celestine V (1294-1294)
  • St. Pope Pius V (1566-1572)

But the 20th century, as the article noted, has seen a pretty significant resurgence. The 20th century had 8 Popes and half of them have been canonized, including the 3 of the last 4 (and that 4th one was only Pope for 33 days).

So at some level something has changed. But one wonders if it is really what the article writer, Professor Massimo Faggioli, suggests. He points to a movement towards papal supremacy. But I just don’t buy that.

First of all, he’s got the dates all wrong. Yes, the 1st Vatican council, which he points to, formally defined papal infallibility, but frankly the power and prestige of the Pope is not at all defined by that dogma. Students of Catholic history know that Papal power peaked just before the Reformation. In the High Middle Ages there was no one who had more sway over the world than the Pope. We’re aren’t using a calendar (the Gregorian calendar) named after the Pope who promulgated it in 1582 for nothing. (1582 is a over a half century after the start of the Reformation, but his power took centuries to wain from it’s pre-Reformation peak.)

And this doesn’t just apply to his secular power. Ever since the Orthodox/Catholic split was formalized in 1054, over precisely the issue of the Pope’s doctrinal authority, the Pope has had great and nearly unquestioned doctrinal authority of the Church from top to bottom.

This is why I’d argue that Papal power and prestige is looking at the wrong thing. Far more interesting, timeline wise, is the rise and fall of the Papal States. The Pope was the monarch of the Papal States. They were first established (officially anyway) with the donation of Pepin in 756. And the Pope was it’s ruler until it was subsumed by Italy in 1870. (Forgive me for glossing over a lot of nuanced and complicated history.)

With that in mind, go back and look at that by-century catalog of papal canonizations. It’s the 8th century when things really changed. The change was not instantaneous, but it sure looks to me like the arc of the movement away from canonizing Popes is best explained by the rise of the secular power of the Pope. Popes were picked more and more for their secular administrative and leadership skills and less and less for their holiness and doctrinal leadership. Obviously I’m painting with a broad brush, but I think trend-wise it is appropriate.

Which would also suggest why in the 20th century we’re seeing a resurgence. With the collapse of the Papal States, the papacy has returned to being primarily a spiritual leadership position. As a result, is it really a surprise that we’re seeing a resurgence of holiness of those elected to the position?

Said another way, from a canonization perspective we could break the Church into 4 eras:

  • Pre-Edict of Milan (313): 100% Canonized (32 of 32)
  • Post Milan, Pre-Papal States (756): 61% (36 of 59)
  • Papal States era: 6% (10 of 164)
  • Post Papal States: 44% (4 of 9)

It’s hard to argue with those groupings both from a historical significance stand point and how starkly the rates of Canonization changed when the Church transitioned from one to the other.

So while I think it is reasonable to ponder and debate whether we should be canonizing so many Popes, particularly to do so as quickly after their death as was done for St. Pope John Paul II, I’d argue that that ‘Pope worship’ and idolization is not what is going on here nor should be the basis for that debate. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny against the backdrop of Catholic history.

(Hat tip to Deacon’s Bench for bringing my attention to the article)

Aren’t we all frauds?

I watched a movie last night, who’s plot was about a man who had been dumped by his longtime girlfriend and was struggling to get back to dating again. He had two problems. The first was he still genuinely missed his old girlfriend and he didn’t know how to put that behind him. The second was he had lost his confidence to approach women.

The movie shows him doing a number of awkward attempts at approaching women. Half of them started with him trying to present himself as someone desirable. But it wouldn’t take long for the woman he approached to challenge him on his “resume” and then he’d crumble, having been exposed as a fraud.

The other half of the time he’d attempt the opposite approach, coming from a position of vulnerability. We’d admit he missed his girlfriend and talk about how horrible his life was. The result was always the same: a very sympathetic woman who had zero romantic interest in him.

And then he’d torture himself about what he should do since neither approach was working.

The resolution to the problem was that he kept working at it until the day came, unbeknownst to him, that he had genuinely healed from the pain of having been dumped. That night he approached a woman and came from a position of both genuine interest in her but also a humility that didn’t require inflating his “resume”.

Isn’t this the journey we’re all trying to make? (and I don’t just mean in romance) Aren’t we all trying to get to a place of authenticity?

I think this is a big part of what the journey of Lent is about. We’re all frauds. We’re all sinners pretending to be saints. But at the same time, we know it is not ideal to wallow in our sinfulness. And we don’t know how to split the difference between being a fraud and wallowing. Sure, there are times when we can do no better than wallowing, but it is a moment when we need others to serve us and help us. God calls us to be servants, not to be served.

No, instead our goal is to reach that place where we accept our own sinfulness and the cross that it comes with. But instead of wallowing and being stuck in one place, we find the strength to do the hard work of carrying our cross. To proclaim to the world: I am a sinner but I am carrying my cross, doing my best to journey towards sainthood.

The debt we owe God and our forefathers

I’ve recently been on a kick of watching rock climbing documentaries. (Of course that included ‘Free Solo’, which I may comment on later.) One of them was one I had seen a few years ago called ‘Valley Uprising’ which was about the history of rock climbing in Yosemite going back to the early 50’s.

The movie spends a fair amount of time on the culture of rock climbing throughout its history and the rebellious nature of much of it. Much of the movie it glorifies it.

As Catholics, we need to be careful when it comes to counter-cultural things. Our faith is *VERY* counter-cultural, even when most people in the culture are Catholic. Even when most people embrace the basic principles of Christ, His radical call of living a self-less lifestyle will always elude most people. The human condition just has too much pride; too much selfishness for everyone in any society to embrace Christ’s call in its fullness.

So we’d better be careful before we write off a counter-cultural movement.

The general ethos of the rock climbing community, particularly of the historical elite climbers (i.e. before corporate sponsorship made it so the elite could squeak out a living that way), is one of poverty for the sake of rock climbing. They’d live on very little and camp right by the rocks.

But yet again, we’d better be careful before we write off a movement that embraces intentional poverty… there are plenty of those within the Church.

But yet I couldn’t escape a feeling of disdain for their overall lifestyle choices and the glorification of those choices in the documentary. And I think it came down to the debt they refused to admit they had…

All of us have life because our parents and their parents and their parents before them, made the sacrifice to be parents. All of the conveniences we have, everything from roads to safe drinking water to metals to computers, are the result of the innovation of past generations. We benefits greatly from the past sacrifices of others.

I think we all have a responsibility to contribute to that on-going development of humanity. We have a debt that needs to be paid if we can feel justified in taking advantage of all that led to us.

It doesn’t have to be parenthood, although I think it is a very good way. It just has to be the pursuit of some human excellence for self-less reasons. It can even be something that you fail at, as long as the goal was to in some way contribute to the opus of what we have all been given.

And I just don’t see that in much of the glorification of obsessive and life long pursuit of excellence in some hobby… at least not as it plays out in our current era. I think there are many hobbies that contribute to the world. I’d even argue that rock climbing could be one of them. But the key to me is why is one doing it. Is one doing it so that the hobby can be a way for more people to enjoy God’s creation? Or are they doing it as thrill seekers or for fame and glory?

In fairness, I think the answer varies from person to person. I’m tempted to believe in the noble pursuits of John Salathe, Royal Robbins, John Bachar, Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold. It seems to me they saw something noble in rock climbing and desired to perfect it for the overall good of the world. (But in fairness, I don’t know any of these people outside of a handful of documentaries and a few dozen articles, so I could be overly charitable to some or all of them).

In contrast, I can’t see anything noble in Dean Potter, Warren Harding or Jim Bridwell. Although, just as much as I must admit I don’t know those I admire well enough to properly judge, I could just as easily be being too quick to condemn the above people.

But taking a step back from the actual people to the conceptual, it seems there are two groups: Those who are climbing to walk away from any sense of the greater good and are doing so for personal and selfish reasons. And right beside them are people, perhaps living very similar lives, who are there for the pursuit of something noble and good.

And my hope for the climbing community is that they could see the difference (and if this documentary accurately portrays things, I don’t think they currently do). That they could see the difference between someone who is a leach, that has no sense of the great gift of life they have been given and a responsibility to give something back, and someone who climbs with a profound sense of the wonderful creation they have been given and their responsibility to give something back to it.

Homily for 2nd Sunday of Lent

(Note: I’ve struggled with whether to post my homilies on the blog. I don’t write them with the intent that they are to be posted. I don’t want to let the thought that I might post them affect what I write. They are intended for the audience at Mass and I think it is important they stay that way. But what I’ve decided is that I’ll post them if I think they are generally appropriate and just not post the ones I think should stay local to the parish. We’ll see how it goes and I reserve the right to change my mind later. 🙂 )


People ask, what did Peter do wrong?  Why was it so wrong of him to request to make 3 tents?  The textbook answer is that Peter didn’t want it to end.  He didn’t want to go down the mountain to regular life.  And so he was trying to extend it by setting up camp.  But I think there’s something else here.  Because the moment was not over.  God still had one more miracle to perform: To speak from the cloud and remind Peter, James and John that Jesus was His son.  Peter wasn’t necessarily wrong to want this moment to continue.

So what then?  I think the 1st reading from Genesis today shows numerous parallels.  In the 1st reading God takes Abram outside to show him the stars.  In the Gospel Jesus takes the 3 up a mountain.  Abram falls into a trance.  The 3 are overcome by sleep.  Abram is given a vision when he wakes.  The 3 wake up to the Transfiguration.  And finally, both passages end with God speaking those present.  These events have strong parallels.

Except for one thing… Abram feels no need to insert his own will into the unfolding events.  He’s content to be silent and let them unfold.  Peter on the other hand, refuses to let it play out on God’s terms and insists on talking.  He insists on interrupting the event and inserting his own thoughts.

I find this explanation for Peter’s failure much more appropriate for us.  Perhaps among certain monasteries or similar religious communities, they need to hear that there comes a time to leave the sanctuary and go do God’s work in the world.  But we’re not that community.  We’re a community that is too distracted by the world as it is, that doesn’t spend enough time with God.  The last thing we need to hear is that we need to go back out into the world.

No, what we need is very different.   We need to spend more listening to God.  And the only way that’s going to happen is if we stop talking and turn off all the noise around us.

We are inundated with noise and conversation.  Get it from our phones, constantly pinging at us with e-mail and texts, with Facebook notifications and twitter.  We get it from our TVs, with everything from the news and talking head shows to sports to comedy and drama.  We get it from our car stereos, with more talk and a plethora of music.  We are so inundated with noise that for most of us we find the idea of silence scary.  So let me tell you a scary story.

About two months ago I was at the hospital with a family whose father and patriarch was in a coma and near death.  I had already completed the formal prayers I had come to say, but I wanted to stay and hold vigil with the family.  As time went on I found myself struggling to resist the temptation to say something, in part because I had nothing meaningful to say.  And so time passed: 10 minutes of nothing to say.  20 minutes of nothing to say.  30 minutes of nothing to say.  And I started to feel like they were unsure what I was still doing there.  Should I just leave?

But then, after a long awkward silence, the eldest brother spoke up.  “Deacon, I have a question I need to ask you.  Is God angry with our family?”  You see, this was the 4th death for this family in the last year.  They’d lost a mother, a mother-in-law, a husband in his 50’s and now their father.  And their faith was shaken.

I knew then why I had stayed through a half-hour of silence.  He needed me there to tell them. “No, God is not angry. God loves you!”  But God knew that question was never going to come in 5 minutes.  They needed the time to reflect and think and to find the courage to ask what was bugging them deep in their heart.  God knew that if I just told them right away that God loves them, their hearts were not ready to receive it.  And so he had all of us wait that 30 minutes in silence so all of us would be ready.  So that God could tell them “I love you!”

I think we all need to ask ourselves: How many times in my life have I refused to be quiet and wait for whatever God has to say to me?  How many times have I missed the opportunity to hear what I most desperately needed to hear from God because I was too impatient and too willing to let God be interrupted by all the noise in my life? When you get home today, find some time to be truly quiet.  Turn off the music and the TV.  Turn off your phone, not just silent mode, but OFF, and banish it to a different room.  Be truly silent.  Not just for 10 or 20 minutes.  Perhaps not even 30 minutes will be enough.  And ask God that question: “God, what do you have to say to me?  What have I missed hearing from you because I’ve refused to find truly quiet time for prayer?”  I beg of you.  Find the time to do this.  If you want to see Christ transfigured;  If you want to know God in all His glory… all you must do is listen.  So find that time, every week if you can, to turn off all the noise and distraction so that the only voice that is left, is God’s.

Process and methods are important

A big part of my heart was overjoyed by the news that Governor Newsom is putting a moratorium on the death penalty in California and considering commuting the death sentences (but not life imprisonment) of everyone on death row. It is long past due that Californians recognize the futility of the death penalty:

  • It’s extremely expensive, costing an average of $1.1 million at trial and $175k extra a year per inmate for their special treatment (both housing and appeals).
  • In practice very few are executed, only 13 since it was re-instituted in 1976 in California. In that same time, at least 70 died of natural causes, 24 committed suicide, and 6 died of other non-natural causes (drug overdose, murder, etc.). (I say “at least” because the above data is from 2015).
  • There’s no meaningful scientific evidence it is a significant deterrent to committing capital level crimes.
  • Similarly there is no evidence it brings peace to the families of the victims. If anything, the constant appeals and legal wrangling prevent them from moving on with their lives.
  • At the same time, all of these appeals and length legal processes are important and valuable. 5 people in California were convicted and sentence to the death penalty only to later be exonerated. Without those appeals, it would greatly increase the chance that someday an innocent person would be executed.

So, even if one isn’t willing to listen to a moral/religious argument about the sanctity of life, it still seems like there’s a strong argument to say “Why are we doing this? What’s the point?”

So thank God for those who fight against the death penalty. And I am *mostly* thankful for Governor Newsom’s decision.

Why only “mostly”? Because I’m a big believer that the process by which we accomplish things is *EXTREMELY* important. There are so many unintended negative consequences when things are done in under-handed ways or when things are rushed at a faster pace that the public is ready to accept.

Obviously we’ll never know the alternate outcomes, but I think it is possible the civil war could have been avoided and we still could have eradicated slavery in the US by the end of the 19th century. It happened in many other places around the world in that same time without over a half-million lives being lost.

I’m not enough of an expert on the matter to speak intelligently to the specifics of how the civil war could have been avoided. All I know is that the 2nd half of the 19th century saw profound change on the subject throughout the world in countries far and wide, from Brazil, to Cambodia, to the Ottoman Empire, to the Netherlands, to Spain, to Cuba. It’s not unreasonable to think that given more time, the US could have made the transition without resulting to civil war.

Obviously I don’t think the death penalty will result in anything as extreme as a civil war, but I do think it could have notable societal impacts of a negative nature. The simple reality is that both the American and California public are adamantly for the death penalty. In California, propositions to overturn the death penalty have been put before the voters multiple times in the last 20 years and every time they have been soundly rejected.

To make matters worse, Newsom said *NOTHING* in his campaign for governor about this. The only quote that any reporter has dug up was not even from the campaign but 2 years earlier when he was lieutenant governor but advocating for the most recent proposition to overturn the death penalty. To quote from the article:

While campaigning for the death penalty repeal measure in 2016, Newsom told The Modesto Bee editorial board he would “be accountable to the will of the voters” on the death penalty if he became governor.

Update… I found a more complete quote in a video from that same interview:

I have enormous sensitivity and respect for people that disagree. And so my position has always been, if ever I was in a position to actually be accountable… would be accountable to the will of the voters. I would not get my personal opinions in the way of the public’s right to make a determination of where they want to take us (inaudible) the death penalty

I think Newsom had a responsibility to be honest during the governor campaign. He needed to say that if elected he would consider putting a moratorium on the death penalty and commuting the death sentences of everyone on death row. I think this is particularly true considering his quote from 2016 that implies exactly the opposite. Might he have lost because of that? Perhaps. He won by a pretty sizable margin so perhaps not. But this is an issue that gets a lot of people worked up, even a lot of Democrats that voted for him.

But risking losing is exactly why it is what he should have done. The right answer is always to act with integrity and try to convince the opposition of the rightness of your cause. Deception and going back on one’s promises leads to great angst in the population.

I think a great deal of the political angst we see in society today, that has led to the polarization of our country, is due to decades of deceptive and underhanded behavior by politicians and political parties. People are sick of it and running to more and more extreme measures to try and combat it. If we want to fix this, what is most needed is politicians with integrity and honesty. It’s more important than their specific policy positions (within reason).

So, while a big part of me is joyful today, I must admit there is a tinge of fear and disappointment. I’m not sure this was the right way to go about this.

Can we have both female deacons and married priests?

Two hot topics for Catholic insiders has been the investigation Pope Francis launched into whether the Church might be able to have women deacons and, separately, whether the Church will allow more married priests, starting with South America.

Starting with the female deacons, from what I understand an investigation was completed and handed to the Pope. It more or less said that there were women deacons into the early middle ages and many of them had a ceremony when they became women deacons that looked nearly identical to the ordination ceremony of male deacons. There’s less clarity in the similarity of their roles however and they seemed in many cases to have been chosen to do things that would be imprudent to have men do, like baptizing adult women (which was often done nude).

In what seems like a completely different topic, there’s an upcoming council where the issues of expanding the ranks of married priests will be discussed. From what I understand there’s a huge shortage in South America, particularly in remote areas like the Amazon.

A very interesting article in Crux discussed some of the concerns with increasing the number of married priests. One of them was this:

There is also a fear that ordaining viri probati would create a caste system in the priesthood. Less educated, married, and ordained under special circumstances, these priests would be seen as second-class clergy in the Church.
When the permanent diaconate was first established, the term “lay deacons” was often used to describe the new clergy. Even today, permanent deacons labor under rules on using clerical dress and titles that seem more concerned with making sure no one confuses them with priests than on making sure people know they are clergy. Viri probati priests could face similar problems.

It seems to me that a hidden (or at least infrequently talked about) dichotomy exists between these two thrusts. I’m not expert enough to know whether the Church could or should ordain women deacons. I’ll leave that to the wisdom of the Church and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

But what *IS* clear is that there will be no women priests. The Church has been pretty clear on the subject. Pope John Paul II wrote a whole document on it – Ordinatio Sacerdotalis – and Pope Francis has re-iterated that thought.

So it seems to me that if we are concerned about the fact that there might be a caste system between different types of clergy (and make no mistake, deacons are clergy) and women could never be priests, allowing women deacons would permanently ensure that caste system existed. There would be a class of clergy who were fundamentally ineligible to be the other types of clergy. It would further the divide between deacons and priests.

Having married priests on the other hand would seem to re-unite the priests and deacons. If we had some of both, it would suggest that they shared more in common than before, where only one had married members. The fear is that married priests would be seen as “lower” the way today’s deacons are often seen.

But that issue is resolvable (and in my opinion is slowly being resolved). I’d even argue that married priests may help to resolve the issues. In my opinion, part of what makes deacons seem “lower” is that we are “part time” ministers. We aren’t employed by the Church by nature of our ordination. We have to provide for our own income for us and our families. This makes us appear as a less dedicated, less engrossed in the day to day life of the Church as priests, who are full-time employed by the Church.

Having married priests would I think open doors to employed deacons (if the Church is supporting the priest’s family, they could conceivably do it for the deacons too) or if the Church went the other way and married priests were “part time” it would hopefully eventually lead to an understanding that employment is not the fundamental thing that shows where our hearts fully lie.

All of this is a long way of saying that I think the Church is likely faced with a choice: It can either widen the wedge between deacons and priests by ordaining women, and thereby make it even harder to imagine a world with married priests (since the lone example of married clergy are now further from the priesthood) or work harder to re-unite all levels of clergy, and by necessity accept that it means that women can not be deacons.

But, perhaps there’s something big I’m not seeing. I’m very open to other ideas on the subject. Thoughts?

Thoughts on Jesus in the desert

Today is the 1st Sunday of Lent. The common theme for all 3 years of the Lectionary is Jesus in the desert. What came to mind when I was preparing to proclaim the Gospel is that there are two different vantage points to look at temptation:

  1. From the viewpoint of the person doing the tempting… the devil in this case.
  2. From the viewpoint of the person being tempted… Jesus in this case.

Because I don’t want to have constantly clarify my words, for the remainder of this post I will use the word tempt (and it’s variants) for #1 and the word entice (and it’s variants) for #2.

I don’t know if I’m alone in thinking this, but I’ve always thought of Jesus as having not been very enticed by the Devil’s tempting. Sure, those are pretty big and powerful things to tempt someone with:

  • You’re hungry? Here’s a way to get some food.
  • For most human beings, the prospect of power and honor is very enticing.
  • Similarly, the desire to show off our capabilities, to prove how awesome we are, is also very enticing to most of us.

But I tend to think of Jesus in perfect terms, usually in divine terms, or when I think of Him in human terms I think of him as being the perfection of human behavior. So, while the rest of us would be pretty enticed by the Devil’s temptation, I generally assume that Jesus wouldn’t have been similarly enticed.

But is that right?

We should also remember that Jesus was fully human during His time on earth. Part of what we believe about the human condition is that we have those temptations that are very enticing to us. It differs from person to person, but we all have multiple things that entice us greatly. For me, food is on that list. I struggle with my weight (losing the battle too often). The sin of gluttony is one I confess all too regularly. But for others, beyond massive hunger, they aren’t much enticed by food. For them it might be lust or sloth or greed. Some of us struggle with many enticements.

Thus it seems fair to assume that Jesus too, being fully human, had his things that enticed him. And the Devil, being capable of seeing things us humans can not, had to be well aware of what to tempt Christ with. And so, one has to think, that Jesus was indeed much enticed by what the Devil was using to tempt.

The question then becomes, if Jesus was so enticed, as enticed as we are when we fail to resist the enticement, how was it that he was able to resist? We all have so much experience with the temptations of the world catching us at our weakest moments, when we lack the fortitude to resist what entices us, and us falling into sin. How did Jesus do better?

I think that’s where my first instinct of assuming that Jesus wasn’t all that enticed comes from. I have a hard time believing that someone could be so enticed and still resist. But that might also be the most powerful lesson in this passage from the Gospel.

Jesus found the strength to resist by tapping into the divine. No matter how much He was enticed, no matter how much *we* are enticed, God offers us His strength to combat it. It may be difficult for us in our humanity to believe that or to trust God or to reach out to God enough to grab onto that strength, but Jesus demonstrates that it *IS* possible. He was enticed by the Devil in the most comprehensive way the Devil could conceive. The Devil wanted nothing more than to turn Christ against His Father. Yet Christ found the power to resist in God.

I think if we can all learn that lesson, to believe deep in our hearts that we can resist any temptation no matter how enticing it is, by tapping into the power of God, we’d be far better off.

Do you fully love your spouse?

I’ve been exposed to a number of difficult marital situations in the last few weeks. I can’t go into the details, but it’s heart-wrenching stuff. There are deep wounds that threaten to sever their relationships… perhaps permanently.

One of the things that can be very difficult is to well communicate what true love looks like, without overstating things. How does one make it clear that there are times of abuse or serial infidelity where separation is absolutely necessary but that doesn’t mean we are excused from our promises to self-less love beyond normal human means? Worse yet, how does one well communicate what the criteria might be to determine when one insists on a separation is acting selfishly or whether it is actually self-less?

This is particularly difficult when the issue of divorce in those difficult cases comes up but the Church rightly says that divorce is not itself grounds for an annulment. How can the Church say it is right to be separated, perhaps for the rest of one’s life including divorce, but at the same time say that there is still a marriage there?

While praying about how to speak about this, a parallel occurred to me that I think is worth pondering. It may not be a complete parallel, but I think it at least helps re-frame the conversation in terms that make sense to most people:

Ask yourself “How would I respond if it was my adult child, instead of my spouse, who was acting this way?”

You see, I think we as parents more naturally get self-less love with our children. We will *always* love our children and they will be our children “until death do us part”. Even if they murder or rape someone… they will still be our children. Even if they cheat on their spouse, your daughter/son-in-law who you’ve come to deeply love, you may be very disappointed in your child, but you will still love them.

Even if they get addicted to drugs or become physically abusive, and you have to separate yourself from them for the health of the family (and yourself) and it may be many years before you can have any sense of reconciliation… you will still love them. They will still be your child. Even if you never can see them again because they never repent of their sins and their harmful behavior, you will still love them and they will still be your child. And you will always be hoping and waiting and praying for the day that this comes to an end and you can hold your beloved child in your arms again. And you will do everything in your power to ensure that you won’t do anything to create non-essential barriers to reconciling.

That is self-less love. That is the love we are called to for our spouses. It is a love that is both realistic about the current problems and what must be done, but at the same time is time-less and unbreakable. I think it might be that if we ask ourselves “If my adult child were to do what my spouse has done that has hurt me so badly, how would I respond?” we might just be able to see more clearly the sort of love we are called to for our spouses.

Charitably reading others and a ‘joyful’ Lent

Our parish hands out ‘The Little Black Book’ reflections for Lent every year. For those not familiar with them, they are a booklet that has 2 pages dedicated to each day of Lent with a reflection of that day. They say it should take about 6 minutes each day.

I have to admit, I wasn’t too pleased with today’s reflection. It starts with “Before the latest revision of the Roman Missal, one of the prefaces for Lenten Masses thanked God because ‘each year you give us this joyful season…'” The reflection then goes on to talk about why the word joyful is used.

This is my objection: The text of the Missal was changed for a reason. The Church has itself decided that joyful is not the right word. Why are they insisting on sticking to a word that the Church has decided was not right?

To make matters worse, the reflection in the Little Black Book isn’t arguing that Lent is joyful, it is arguing that Lent is a positive thing. To use it’s words, “If I make this a good Lent, I’ll find myself a happier person.” I also speaks of Lent being “invigorated, energized, enlivened…”

And that I would agree with. Lent is a positive thing. I’d bias towards words like holy, edifying, reconciling, purifying and strengthening, all of which are positive things. And so while my choice of words may have been slightly different, I’d overall agree.

Which makes it all the more baffling to me why they’d stick with an unnecessary reference to a Missal translation we haven’t been using for 8 years. Why!?! And I was tempted to assume their motives were less that honorable. That they were “obsessed” with the old translation and couldn’t let it go. But then I read the ‘about’ page in the back of the book:

“In 1999, Bishop Ken Untener … decided to create a Little Black Book. … Bishop Untener died 15 years ago, on March 27, 2004, but his writings, talks and homilies are the basis for the reflections on the right-hand side of ‘Little Books’.”

Which brings a great deal of clarity. I suspect the reflection for the day today has been the same since 1999 or at least since 2004. And the care-takers of this ministry are trying very hard to be as true to Bishop Untener’s writings as possible. And so they’re stuck with a difficult problem. They’ve got the words he used and decided are best for this day of Lent, but they reference words that changed in the Missal 6 years *after* his death. How are they to reconcile this? Do they find some other writing of his to substitute even though it is not the thought he had for this day? Do they change the overall wording and risk perhaps changing the intended message he wanted? Or do they add a quick preface to the text to indicate that these were the words before the Missal change so as to leave his text as intact as possible?

Obviously they chose the last route. And while I might argue it would have been wiser to go with the middle option, it’s hard to argue with the good intentions of the care-takers of these booklets. There’s no reason to presume they’re “obsessed” with the old translation. It’s likely quite the opposite.

The point of all of this is that we need to be really careful when we get frustrated with others, particularly when we take it to the level of assuming bad motives. Most of the time there is so many things that contribute to a persons decisions and actions. Most of the time we’re unaware of much of it. And while we may have still argued for a different decision than the one we made, I’ve found that most of the time, when I learn the back-story of a decision/action I disagree with, I find that my ability to ascribe negative motives to them usually goes away.

Our society is in a really bad place in this regard currently. Far too often we find the flimsiest excuses we can find to ascribe bad motives to others. We’re waiting for the opportunity to condemn.

But this is not what Christ calls us to. We are called to assume the best of others. We are called to remember that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God.

Perhaps this is yet another thing we should all be working on this Lent.

The failure of Lenten resolutions

I know it seems odd to write on the 1st day of Lent about failing at our Lenten resolutions, but a big part of what makes me choose my disciplines for Lent is whether I think I can stick to them. So the topic of failure is on my mind right from the start.

It seems to me there’s a parallel between New Years resolutions and what we’re “giving up for Lent”. Much of what people give up for Lent are things that are bad for them. Indeed, my list includes soda and cookies… two things that are not helping my waist-line. What concerns me about this parallel is the failure rate of New Years resolutions. Interestingly, 64% are successful for a month (so only 36% have failed by that point), but 80% have failed by the 2nd week of February. 4 1/2 weeks in January plus at most 2 weeks in February… that’s 6 1/2 weeks, which is the length of Lent.

While I don’t have exacting data, the New Years data suggests the majority of Lenten resolutions will have failed before the end of Lent as well, assuming similar failure rates. Although some suggest that the accountability of the faith community as well as the fixed timeline (compared to a New Years resolution that generally is meant to be a life-long change) make it so that Lenten resolutions are more successful than New Years resolutions.

But I think there’s something else that can be different about Lent and indeed about any Christian resolution for change… forgiveness and renewed resolution. There’s something about a New Years resolution that make it seem like once you’ve failed, it’s time to give up… at least until next year. There’s a collective feeling of “Well, we tried. Oh well!”

Hopefully we don’t have this sort of feeling about our Lenten resolutions. If you give up chocolate and give in to temptation, the right answer is to say a prayer asking God for forgiveness and then re-doubling your efforts. This seems more in line with our cherished beliefs about Gods’ forgiveness.

We believe forgiveness and redemption is possible for everyone. While there are many that society will write off as being irredeemable, as Christians we’re called to believe that anyone, no matter how big their sins, can be transformed. This is a great gift to the sinner. Without the possibility of redemption, few would turn their lives around.

This is just as true for the little sins. We can keep returning to the confessional over and over with the little things we struggle with. We’re allowed to try time and time again to overcome our temptations. So where the New Years resolution tends to have a ‘once-and-done’ feel, hopefully when it comes to our Lenten resolutions, even when we momentarily fail, hopefully we have the fortitude to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, ask God for pardon, and begin again.

May we all have that strength this Lenten season.

Printable prayer

As I mentioned in a recent post, I started praying a prayer of my own creation (not that it is all that unique in nature) to help me in regards to some of my habitual sins. I decided to create a print out that I could put around the house in the locations where I tend to fall into my habitual sins.

In case you’d like to try it, here is the print out (4 per page):

What does “lay down one’s life” mean?

I was doing a morning Lectio Divina reflection on John Chapter 15. In it, Christ says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life one’s friends.” (verse 13)

Of course when we read that, our first thought is generally about what Christ later did: He died on the Cross for all of His friends… US! And so I think it is only natural for us to think in these terms. But what if that’s just the first layer of the onion, a layer that could possibly be an obstacle to us growing in faith?

How often is death actually asked of us in service of others? Not very often, right? So how are we to change our day to day life to conform to that truth? If all we’re doing is spiritually preparing ourselves for the unlikely possibility that someday we may be called to die for God, it seems like we’re not really doing all that much, nor is it something we can test ourselves against to see how we’re progressing in love of God.

Luckily, I think there’s another layer below that. What if we make the word substitution of “giving” instead of “laying down”? It still fits the literal/top layer. We can give our life for our friends. That terminology is often used for someone who died for another.

Yet at the same time, giving our life can also mean that we dedicate every moment of our life to another. We speak of giving our life to our spouse or our children and by that we mean that we no longer use our days for our own benefit, but give those days of service to them.

So I think it is better if we understand this passage in two ways. The first literal way is worth keeping and valuable. But we should also see it in terms of service of God and our fellow man. We can “lay down” our life by every day making the self-less decision to serve God. We can transform our perspective from one that is selfish and mostly concerned with what is for our own good into a life that is self-less and where every day is given to the service of others.

That’s something we can work on getting better at every day. That’s something we can measure whether we’re making progress in our relationship with God. That’s something that come the end of our life we can have hope that we’ll hear the refrain we all hope to hear: “Well done, faithful servant.”

Aim high and try again

I have to admit, the last 36 hours have not been my finest. Not that anything horrible went wrong, but I succumbed to some of my bad habits that tend to torture me. What’s worse is that the last few weeks have been very good in those same areas, so the last day and a half has felt like a big step backwards.

While reflecting on how to recover from this setback a few thoughts came to mind that I thought worth sharing:

  • Most of the time, the wrong reaction to setbacks is to set our sights lower. Of course there are exceptions to this. There are times when we will we set our goals delusionally high and it ends up being an obstacle to both success and peace in our lives. But I think that’s the exception, not the rule. Generally, the right path is to aim high and be ready to work on a recovery plan if we fall short of that. I think this is something to keep in mind as we make our plans for Lent. Let’s make plans that are both semi-realistic, but also stretch us a bit. Let’s aim high.
  • Prayer is so essential to success. And not just praying, but making sure it’s good prayer. I’ve been in a very good prayer habit the last few weeks, but Wednesday morning I was a bit tired and I let myself treat it to mechanically. I said the words, but my head and my heart weren’t there as much as they should have been. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that later in the day when my temptations came calling, I wasn’t well prepared to resist them.
  • Speaking of which, here is a prayer that I made spontaneously a couple of months ago and I find it to be surprisingly effective at resisting my temptations: “Holy Spirit, give me strength and fortitude over my temptations. Protect me from Satan as I tell him – “You have *NO* power over me!” I say this prayer the instant, and I mean right away, whenever I feel tempted to something. I’m actually surprised how well it works. But when temptation came calling Wednesday afternoon I was in enough of a prayer rut that I didn’t say that prayer.
  • Finally, I am reminded that it is never God who ceases to offer us fortitude and protection, it is our weak humanity that chooses to walk away from it. God is always there. We just have to choose to tap into the graces he offers us.

So, let us aim high, be vigilant in our prayer lives, and when we fall down, let us pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again.