William and Thomas

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Two men, William [W] and Thomas [T], are speaking to each other:

W – I tell you, things can't possibly be as you say. Just listen and I will explain.

T – But you cannot explain; for the two us to come to any agreement there would have to be common ground between us and if things are as you say, then that is not possible. And yet the fact we are having this conversation proves that it is.

W – Well now who's talking nonsense? What on earth do you mean?

T – First, let us get our facts straight. You've said that we cannot know the reality of things outside ourselves, correct?

W – No, that is not what I said.

T – Of course it is! You said that you can't be sure that an oak tree in Oxford is in any way similar to one in Italy.

W – Yes, I did say that.

T – If you can't know that they are similar in any way then how is it that you can refer to both of them as oak trees or as trees at all? If we cannot know there is anything similar about them then we can't know enough to even refer to them with the same word 'tree'. With this way of thinking all of reality begins to break down. What if the individual thing I am referring to with the word 'tree' is actually a cat and what you are referring to with the same word 'tree' is actually a butter knife? If this were the case then our conversation right now would be pure nonsense. And yet this is obviously not true because you do agree that our conversation right now is intelligible, right?

W – No, I don't.

T – ?!?

And thus William proves for us that Nominalists are schizophrenic; using words which truly represent something in reality while denying the existence of that very reality.

 

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We are All Called

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Today is my sixth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. Interestingly, I came across the following quote in Transformation in Christ:

The question of whether I feel worthy to be called is beside the point; that God has called me is the one thing that matters.

Transformation in Christ, p. 168

Am I good enough or qualified enough to be a Catholic priest – nope. But as von Hildebrand has pointed out that is not the right question. The question for each and every one of us is this: what has God called me to do? First of all, He has called each and every one of us to salvation. This begins in Baptism and continues in a life lived in accordance with the teachings of Christ, which comes to us through the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Church.

But also we each have something specific to do in this life. Has God called all men to be priests? No, but He has called all people to something. Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman explains it best:

God has called me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.

I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for nothing. I shall do good, I shall do His work.

It seems to me that those who in this life do not know their mission simply haven't asked the question: what does God want me to do? They just go through life doing what they think 'has' to be done without thinking of the most important things – such as why are we here at all? God has called each of us to something, otherwise we wouldn't exist at all. I don't know what He has called you to do but I do know that He has called you. It is your job to find out.

Time to Wake Up

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Sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity
November 15, 2015

The sun comes up in the east and it does so every day. Its rays wake up the sleepy world with every new morning and we go about the business of the day without a second thought. The sun comes up and goes down in an apparent never ending cycle. And the cyclical nature of this everyday occurrence makes us think it will go on this way forever.

And yet, science tells us that the sun is just a big ball of exploding gas, which will eventually run out of fuel. And even though this may not happen for another billion years we still know that it will happen. Perhaps we don’t worry about it because we know it will never affect us – that’s something for someone else to worry about.

Continuing on with this theme of the sun, listen again to the words of our Lord, “…in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light.” These words of our Lord are confirmed by modern science ­– which shouldn’t be surprising – eventually this world, and in fact the entire universe, will come to an end. It is true that we may not see the end of the world in our lifetime but the only reason for that is because we would be dead. So either death or the end of the world will come to each of us, and yet we continue on with our lives like Nero fiddling amongst the fires of Rome – just going about our business like nothing is happening. Why is it that we are so complacent when we know the end will come? Are we all just crazy like that ancient Roman dictator?

In order to understand this complacency within us – and to wake up to the need to overcome it – let us look for its explanation in our lives. To do this let us ask the following question: why do we live our lives as if life will never end? To answer this question let us consider the alternative to a life lived as if it will never end – its opposite would be an oversensitivity to the approaching end demonstrated by the person who lives every day in constant fear that the next moment will be his last. Some people do in fact become trapped in this way of thinking and it can be crippling to the point that you don’t even want to venture outside, much less go to work and have a normal life. Most people, though, don’t succumb to this because deep down we all really want to be happy. After all, God made us to be with Him forever in eternal bliss and so we are naturally drawn to what will make us happy.

As a result of not knowing when the end of our life will come and instead of living our day-to-day life in constant fear of the end, most of us try to go about our day as happily as we can. But as time continues to go on day after day we get comfortable in our various routines and eventually push out of our minds that the end will one day come. We do this because to think of such things is too much of an interruption in the little realms of false happiness that we have created for ourselves. And so we become complacent and think, “Everything is ok – there’s nothing to worry about. The sun will continue to come up in the east.”

In order to overcome this disordered way of thinking we must learn to transcend this transitory life so that we may see that this life does not go on indefinitely. The routine of our daily life can make us think that it will, but we must remember what our Lord tells us plainly today – “heaven and earth will pass away.” But then what is left for us? Are we to continually worry and fret that the next moment might be our last? No, not at all.

Eventually, the sun will set on this temporary life and it will not return. And both the forgetfulness of the coming end and the perpetual fear of it come from an inordinate focus on this world, as if this world is all there is. That is why it is crucial for us to always remember that our true home is not here – it is in heaven. To be with God forever is the true end for all of mankind – it is the reason He created us. And our Lord tells us today that when He returns “He will send out the angels, and gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” But to be part of that immortal elect we must choose to follow Him during this mortal life; in doing so we will be able to remain joyful in the day-to-day of our existence here on earth while also looking with anticipation towards the end when our Lord returns in glory.

Ask…Seek…Knock

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October 8, 2015 – Thursday in the Eighteenth Week after Trinity

Readings: Malachi 3:13-4:2a; Luke 11:5-13

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

Luke 11:9, RSV-CE

Today’s Gospel reading must be read as a whole. Otherwise, “ask, and it will be given you” would be understood incorrectly. (For instance, I have asked for a Ferrari many times, but I still don’t have one.) In addition, if we do not read the entire passage we might think that if we persistently annoy God enough with our prayers then He will give us what we want, like the importunate friend in the Gospel.

On the other hand, persistence in prayer is necessary; not because our prayer changes God’s mind, but because it changes us. As St. John Vianney said, “Prayer is union with God.” However, our persistence must take the form of always seeking that which we truly need from God, with the understanding that all we need comes to us from Him. Far too often, though, we continue to ask for a stone, instead of the bread that God desires to give us. But, the more we become transformed into the image of Christ, the more natural it will become for us to ask for what is in accord with the will of God.

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that God will give to us His Holy Spirit. And God gives us the Spirit because, as St. Paul tells us, “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26b) and “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:27b)

So yes, ask and you will receive, but remember that you will receive based upon what you truly need, not what you think you need.

 

The Victory of our Lady

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Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, which is also known by the name Our Lady of Victory. This feast is a commemoration of the naval victory at the Battle of Lepanto of Catholic forces against Muslim forces on October 7, 1576. The Pope at the time, Pius V, had asked all Catholics to pray the Rosary for success in battle and therefore instituted the feast in honor of the victory.

The victory of this battle was decisive and halted the further expansion of Islamic Turks into the European side of the Mediterranean Sea. However, this battle has been over for a very long time. But there is another battle being waged right now in which we still need Mary’s prayers, and that is the battle for each of our souls.

In this battle for our soul from where does our ultimate victory come? It is from Christ because He is the one who has definitively defeated Satan. And those of us who have been baptized into Christ’s death and Resurrection can share with Him in His voctory, if we allow Him to work through us. And how do we cooperate with Him in this way? By saying, in union with our Blessed Mother, “let it be to me according to your word.”

 

Respect for Life

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Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

The USCCB has designated today as ‘Respect Life Sunday’. To many people this may sound synonymous with bringing an end to abortion. But while ending legalized abortion is a major component of respecting life that is not all there is to it. Now it seems obvious to me that such a designation on this Sunday would not be necessary if our country did in fact respect life. But it does not. Quite the opposite is the actual case for what our country believes about human life. There are numerous words that we could use to describe how our society, especially those in power, view human life – they disparage it, denigrate it, despise and disregard it, and have the utmost contempt for it. In short, our society dis-respects life. And we all, to a greater or lesser extent, are guilty of this disrespect for human life. But in order to understand just how deep this disrespect for life goes in our society, we must first understand what it means to respect life. I would define the respect for life as having a due regard for the rights and dignity of all mankind, whether they be born or unborn. Therefore, if we have racist tendencies, thinking we are better than someone else on the basis of skin color, then we are showing disrespect for that person’s life. And while not everyone is a racist, I think this example can help us to see how each of us, even if we are pro-life, is susceptible to a disrespect for the life of others. Now I don’t want to sound as though I am trying to belittle the concern we should have about abortion – I am not. Instead, my purpose is to try to show that there is an underlying problem within our society that leads to at least a tacit acceptance of abortion by many people in our country.

It seems to me that everyone expects to be given the respect their life demands and so you would think that they would desire this same respect for all other human life. But we know that this is not the case and, therefore, must ask why? Why do people not respect the life of their fellow man? There are several things that lead to a disrespect for life. One major component in our lack of respect is a lack of thankfulness for the life we have been given by God. People often take life for granted; in other words, we do not question how we came to be. And because we gloss over that question of how we came to be, we never acknowledge that we did not create ourselves. But in our lives, we must pause and consider the world around us. Where did the universe and everything in it come from? Do we really believe that it is all just chance? Absolutely not! We believe that it is God who created everything, including ourselves, and we need to constantly remind ourselves of this fact and be thankful. It is this lack of thankfulness that exists in our society, though, that is linked to another reason for its disrespect for life, which is this: we do not consider what the ultimate meaning of our life is.

Going back to the first point, if we never consider where it is that we came from, then we will never ask the next logical question: where are we going? Our Lord, and His Church, teaches us that our end, our telos, the reason for our existence is to be with God forever. Out of His infinite love God created mankind in order to be with Him in an everlasting communion of love. And even after mankind sinned, God sent His Son as the expiation for our sins in order to reestablish that communion of love with us. But if we take our life for granted then we will never see beyond this world and into the next. In fact, it would be impossible to do so. And if this world is all we can see then we will start to believe what the world and the devil would have us believe about our life – that we are just a collection of atoms with no ultimate purpose or meaning.

And yet, everyone desires for their life to mean something. And so we try to fill that void by getting as much as we can for ourselves. After all, if we are just a collection of atoms with nothing special about us, then that means that there is nothing special about anyone else. And then we come to view others as obstacles that are just in the way of obtaining the things we think we have a right to possess. And it is this selfishness that has led us to where we are now – over 40 years of sacrificing the unborn so that we can get the things that we want! In regards to this plague of abortion many people have been shocked in the last several months by the undercover videos about Planned Parenthood selling body parts. But I ask this – why are we shocked?! The purpose of that organization has always been to make money from the destruction of human life so why are we surprised that they have found new ways to make money off of it? The real thing that we should be surprised at is the fact that legalized abortion still exists! But we have become numb to the fact that abortion exists and therefore tacitly accept it. But we can do this no longer.

In order to overcome this we must come to an understanding that we all, born and unborn, are much more than just the sum of our parts. If we were the sum of our parts, then we could take the appropriate ratios of elements that make up the human body, put it in a blender and push puree – and voila you would have a new human. But that is not possible because there is a source of life underlying all those parts. Consider, for instance, what happens when someone dies – the body starts to decay. And the reason that the body starts to decay is because there is no longer any unifying principle within the body. In other words, the life has gone out of the body. And this unifying principle that brings life to the body is what we call the soul.

When a man and woman come together in bringing forth new life, they contribute the genetic material necessary for a new, unique person. But that which gives life to the new body – the soul – comes from God. Therefore, if on this Sunday we want to begin to truly respect life – that being to give our due regard for the rights and dignity of all people both born and unborn – then we must remember where life comes from and be thankful.

 

Salt and Society

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You are the salt of the earth. What do these words imply? Did the disciples restore what had already turned rotten? Not at all. Salt cannot help what is already corrupted. That is not what they did. But what had first been renewed and freed from corruption and then turned over to them, they salted and preserved in the newness the Lord had bestowed. It took the power of Christ to free men from the corruption caused by sin; it was the task of the apostles through strenuous labour to keep that corruption from returning.

From a homily on Matthew by St. John Chrysostom

In this section from yesterday’s Office of Readings, St. Chrysostom is quoting our Lord from the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13, RSV-CE). One interpretation I have heard of this passage is that it means we, as Christians, are supposed to add ‘flavor’ to the society in which we live. While this seems like a questionable understanding to me, there may be some truth in it. But there is a problem – if we are flavoring a society that is already rotten then it is not going to taste any better. Therefore, it seems to me that St. Chrysostom’s interpretation – of salt as a preservative of that which is good – is a better understanding of what our Lord is trying to convey.

Before we continue we must deal with an obvious question: is our society rotten? There are many who would say that we, as a nation, are actually on the right path because now there is marriage ‘equality’, gender sensitiveness (evidenced by the acceptance of Bruce Jenner’s ‘new identity’), and other re-interpretations of moral norms. Those in favor of these things would tell us that truth is what we make it: the sky is blue only because I call it blue and I can just as easily call it orange. But just calling it by a different name does not make it so and common sense, which is not so common anymore, tells us that this is true. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I think that a majority of people still have common sense. And if they were asked to take a critical look at the moral degradation of our society over the last 50 years or so, then they would have to agree that our society has indeed become rotten – in the least, parts of it have become so.

So, what do we do? Is there a way to fix our society as a whole? I suppose if we had an absolute monarchy with a moral and just leader then he could do away with all laws that are immoral and unjust. But we would still be faced with the problem of what to do with those people in our society who still believe in that which is immoral and unjust because they think it is a good thing: such as abortion or ‘marriage equality’. The number of people who truly believe in these things as good is considerable and just enacting proper laws is not going to change their mind. And so we would still be left with a cancer in our society – a cancer of a wrong understanding of mankind. And unless the cancer is cured our society will never be healthy. Instead, the cancer will continue to bring with it a certain amount rottenness to the whole of our society.

This brings us back to the quote from St. Chrysostom. Salt does not turn that which is rotten into something edible. And in a similar manner, just having Christians in a rotten society does not make that society healthy. But there is something, or rather Someone, who can bring healing to the individual members of our society: Jesus Christ. Notice that I say ‘individuals’. Even if we conformed all laws in this country to the teachings of the Church it would not be the same as bringing all the members of our society to Christ. Usually, when something is rotten there is nothing that can be done except to throw it away. But because of what Jesus Christ has done for us even the most rotten person can be renewed and made whole. And it is one of the duties of those who believe to tell the non-believer about Christ and to try to help them see the Truth.

Lemmings

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I have been told recently that lemmings don’t actually jump off cliffs to their certain doom. But the common misconception that they do fits with the point I want to make today. Even if lemmings do not throw themselves en masse off a cliff there is one species that does tend to do so: human beings. Let me explain what I mean by starting with a quote from von Hildebrand.

The behavior of unconscious persons is dictated by their nature. They tacitly identify themselves with whatever response their nature suggests to them. They have not yet discovered the possibility of emancipating themselves, by virute of their free personal center, from their nature; they make no use as yet of this primordial capacity inherent in the personal mode of being. Hence their responses to values, even when they happen to be adequate, will always have something accidental about them. Their attitudes lack that character of explicitness and full consciousness which is a prerequisite of meeting in a really apposite way the demand emdbodied in the values. For what the values claim of us is not assent pure and simple, an assent which might as well be a fortuitous efflux of our natural dispostions; it is a fully conscious, rational, and explicit assent, given by the free center of our personality. By such an answer alone does a personal being adequately honor the values and their call, which is addressed to each of us in sovereign majesty, irrespective of his individual dispositions.

Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ignatius Press 2001, p. 62-3

The way he is using ‘unconscious person’ does not mean someone who is asleep or who has been knocked out. What he means is the same thing that I mean when I refer to human beings as lemmings. The actions of unconscious persons/lemmings are “dictated by their nature.” But here another clarification is needed, because when he says ‘nature’ I think we should understand him to mean our fallen nature. In other words, those who go through life as slaves to their various inclinations.

With this in mind we can understand what he means by saying, “Hence their responses to values, even when they happen to be adequate, will always have something accidental about them.” Values are those things which are good and, therefore, make a demand on us. The demand is of an action to be taken on our part in response to the good. For instance, if we see someone bleeding on the ground with a knife in his chest, then the good we are called to do is to try to save the person and call an ambulance. And it is not just a good deed we are called to do, but we should recognize the injured person as good. In fact, the good of the person is the main reason we should perform the good act of helping him.

But for the unconscious person/lemming, if his response happens to be adequate in a given situation, it is only accidental. Lemmings, like a school of fish, just follow along with the rest of the group: if the group makes a moral choice in a certain situation then so will they. But not because it is the right or moral thing to do, but because everyone else is doing it. And it is here that we can see how people behave like lemmings.

At one point in this country the prevailing current of thought would say that a particular belief or action is wrong; for instance, homosexual acts, pornography, abortion, contraception, and the list could go on and on. But now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction on these issues and they are viewed as good. (As if that which is truly good could be arbitrary.) Why did this happen? Quite simply because too many people in our society act like lemmings. They don’t question the behavior of the group and just go along with the crowd – right off the cliff.

In order to correct this problem we are told by von Hildebrand that our decisions and actions need to be made with a “fully conscious, rational, and explicit assent, given by the free center of our personality.” In other words we shouldn’t just go along with the crowd. It is ironic, therefore, that that is how much of society view Catholics: as people who have just bought into a bunch of rules and regulations against what is happening in secular society. But this couldn’t be further from the truth for the real Catholic. A true Catholic follows the teachings of the Church not because everyone else is doing it but because of what it is: it is the teaching of Jesus Christ. After all, if Christ is who He said He is – God – then what He revealed to us must be true and good. And if it is true and good then it deserves our freely given and fully conscious adherence.

But I need to return to the main point and it is this – we are not lemmings and therefore we should stop acting like them. Yes, like lemmings we are creatures made by God but we, unlike them, were made in the image and likeness of God. We have rational souls and therefore have the ability to know right from wrong. As a result we should choose and do the good but not just because it is what a Catholic is supposed to do. To act in that manner would just make us lemmings in religious clothing. Instead, we choose and do the good because we recognize within it that which is true. We are drawn to the good and desire it because in it we see God.

 

Θεοτόκος

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We beseech thee, O Lord, pour into our hearts the abundance of thy heavenly grace: That like as the child-bearing of the Blessed Virgin Mary was unto us thy servants the beginning of salvation, so the devout observance of the dedication of her Basilica may avail for the increasing of our peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major

 

The Council of Ephesus was held in the year of our Lord, 431. The purpose of the Council was to examine the doctrine of Nestorius, who was the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius claimed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, could not be referred to as the Mother of God, but instead must be called the Mother of Christ. The Council condemned the teaching of Nestorius and formally proclaimed that Mary is indeed Θεοτόκος (Theotokos): the God-bearer. (It should be kept in mind that the Church did not simply come up with this idea in a.d. 431. Instead, this was always the understanding of the Church and in light of the heresy of Nestorius, had to be officially defined.)

Shortly after the Council of Ephesus, the Basilica of St. Mary Major was constructed in Rome in honor of the Mother of God. It is the oldest church named in honor of Mary in the West. But that church, and in fact all Catholic churches, are more than just buildings; instead, they are like a mother to us and also like a home.

Through the waters of the baptismal font we are born anew into the Body of Christ. In our baptisms we are made new creatures and incorporated into the one Body of Christ. And if we are part of Christ’s Body then in a very real way Mary is also our Mother. And as such she cares for us just as she cared for her Son. When we are reborn in Baptism she clothes us with the pure white garment worn by all the members of the house. Like all good mothers, she feeds us with the pure milk of Truth that comes to us from our Lord. And it is in the church that we receive the food of life everlasting – the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the church, like in our home, we are protected from that which could harm us. Not only does the church provide a physical structure to protect us from the elements but in it we also receive protection from the evil one. In it, the Faithful are joined together in Holy Matrimony, being the Sacrament that emulates the union of Christ with His Bride, the Church. And when we die we are brought one last time back to the church so that the prayers of the Church may be offered for us.

In all of this, Mary, the Mother of God and our own blessed Mother, watches over us and prays for us, just as she did for her Son. Let us give thanks to God for such an attentive Mother.

 

Prayer: Union with God

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Prayer is nothing else than union with God.

From A Catechism on Prayer, by St. John Mary Vianney

Before today, if someone had asked me “what is prayer” or “why is prayer important,” I would have had a difficult time answering the question. More than likely it would have taken a discussion of 5-10 minutes for me to explain what prayer is. And I suspect that many other people would have a difficult time explaining prayer because it is so mysterious. And yet in just a few words St. John Mary Vianney has given a perfect definition for what prayer is – union with God.

There are many different prayers the Church uses and many different types of prayer, but union with God is at the heart of them all. As an example let us consider the prayer that is most often used by people: petitionary prayer. People ask God for all sorts of things – everything from winning lottery numbers, to a favorite sports team winning the game, to curing a loved one of cancer. And then, when we don’t get what we want we so often say, “Why didn’t God give me what I asked for?!” Perhaps we do not receive what we desire because it was a foolish request, like winning the lottery. But ultimately there is a problem with petitionary prayer because people forget that God does not give us what we want; instead, He gives us what we need.

But this problem would never arise if people kept in mind that prayer is union with God. If in our prayer life we are seeking that union, then when we pray it will naturally be in tune with God’s will for us. There may still be times when we ask for something that is not beneficial for us and therefore God will not give it to us. But if we are always seeking union with God in our prayer, then we will more readily accept not receiving what we desired with the understanding that it was not what we needed. Our Lord teaches this to us with the following words:

For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

St. Matthew 7:8-11, RSV-CE

Too often, without knowing it, we ask for stones instead of bread! If only we would remember that the ultimate reason for prayer is union with God, then we would come to see that that which we receive, even if it is not what we asked for, is exactly what we needed all along.