Look inward

Judging others does nothing for your own salvation

I’ve been to Mass at dozens of different churches in the past year. Early morning Masses, mid-day Masses, evening Masses, Masses in Spanish, Korean, and Indian dialects. They were all slightly different (okay, some more than slightly), but they were all the universal Mass that we as Catholics celebrate.

Due to a fluke in the Masstimes.org app, I inadvertently found myself at a Spanish-language Mass on a recent Sunday. I was perplexed, wanting to experience the Mass in my native language, but the greeter exuded hospitality and said to me, “Mass is Mass.” Amen, brother.

This liturgical diversity stands in contrast to a campaign by a Church leader a few years back to root out “liturgical abuses.” He wrote a series of columns in the diocesan newspaper on the “correct” way to celebrate Mass and declared that he was setting up a diocesan office where people could report these liturgical abuses.

His motivation was laudable: reverence for the presence of God during our sacred worship. His execution, however, left something to be desired. The concept of a diocesan office where you could squeal on your parish priest was a terrible idea. (Here’s a thought: talk to your pastor directly!) It would have the result of distracting people who were watching for abuses from fully participating in the very sacred mysteries they were monitoring.001-Pharisees

I’m not sure what ever became of that initiative (I hope it died a quiet death), but it points up the danger of judgementalism, which is as present today as it was in the time of Jesus. Essentially, it’s the sin of the Pharisees: focusing on the letter of spiritual law and ignoring the incredible presence of God in our midst.

How does this manifest itself? You name it:

  • Writing to the diocesan newspaper to question why some Catholic politician is still allowed to receive communion (think about your own sins and consider whether you’d want a person who doesn’t know you deciding whether you receive communion)
  • Calling a Catholic radio show to question some practice within your parish (again, have a conversation with your pastor; don’t validate your opinion with a third party and use it to assault your priest)
  • Posting on social media the “correct” way to hold your hands during the Our Father.

To be clear, I’m no liturgical anarchist. I’m not advocating an “anything goes” approach to the Mass. I realize that deviating too far from the Roman Missal can be a distraction, but so can watching for those deviations. Plus, an overly rigid approach to liturgical rubrics can alienate those who aren’t liturgical experts and demonstrate a lack of charity.

I’m convinced we’d be a stronger, more vibrant Church if we focused less on what others were doing and put more energy into our own spiritual lives.

The key is to start with ourselves, to look within.

The outward stuff is a distraction. The path to holiness involves focusing on our own spiritual life, our own relationship with Jesus, our own service to others. What are the areas of my life where I need God’s grace? Where does God need to work in my life to root out sin? How can I partner with God to build a stronger spiritual life, a better parish, a more just society?

What others are doing is, often, none of my business, and even if it is, it’s secondary to the work that I need to do on myself, with God’s grace.

If I’m not dealing with the beam in my own eye, I have no right to grouse about the splinter in my neighbor’s eye.



Right here, right now

The immediacy of the Annunciation

When I imagine the Annunciation in my mind’s eye, I see Gabriel appearing to Mary. He’s no cuddly cherub, but is kind of scary looking. (After all, he regularly stands before God and just struck dumb the priest Zechariah.) The outcome of this conversation is much more positive, though, with Mary proclaiming her Fiat: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”Annunciation

Then what? I had always imagined some period of time passing between Gabriel’s visit and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a day, maybe a week, maybe two weeks.

However, as I examined artwork depicting the Annunciation, such as this one from Jan Van Eyck, I realized that some of them show a dove hovering nearby. To me, this means that, as soon as Mary said, “May it be done to me according to your word,” the Holy Spirit was ready to swoop in and overshadow her, impregnating Mary with the life of our Savior.

Boom! No delay, no hesitation, no time for second thoughts.

This is sobering and exciting at the same time.

Sobering, because when we say “Yes” to God, we’d better say it with certainty, since God takes us at our word. The results may happen faster than we imagine, perhaps instantaneously, so we’d better be ready.

Does this mean that we should say “No” to God? Absolutely not.

And that’s the exciting part. If we say “No,” what will we miss? Suffering, trials, tribulation? Probably. But those are far outweighed by incredible spiritual experiences and blessings beyond measure.

Your best bet? Say “Yes.” Immediately. And get ready for a great ride.

Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’

Smart Phones

Yes, they have a place in our spiritual livesiphone

Recently, I read with some bemusement an editorial by a priest decrying the proliferation of smart phones he saw as he celebrated Mass. While I appreciate his concern that the phones might be distracting Mass-goers, I was disappointed at his presumption. He seemed to assume that the phones the phones were only being used for texting during Mass.

The reality is that phones are tools. Like any tool, they can be used appropriately or inappropriately. When used appropriately, they have the potential to bring us closer to God.

Here’s an incomplete list of some of the roles my phone plays in my spiritual life:

  • Prayer book
  • Missal
  • Bible
  • Rosary companion
  • Examination of conscience
  • Spiritual reading
  • Video player for scriptural reflections
  • Mass finder
  • Church directory
  • Prayer group scheduler

I could go on, but you get the point. Obviously, I don’t use my phone for all these things during Mass. However, if you see me looking at my phone in church, don’t assume I’m texting or checking sport scores.


Sharing positive spiritual gifts in stressful times

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Galatians 5:22)

Sometimes, it’s good to get back to basics.applefruitsleaf-271x300

The attributes above, which Paul described to the Christians in Galatia, seem to be in short supply these days. Instead, we’re overwhelmed with “hatreds, rivalry…outbursts of fury…factions,” works of the flesh that Paul describes as being opposed to the Christian life.

As Christians, we’re called to extend love, joy, and peace, even as we’re beset by hatreds and outbursts of fury.

How do we do that?

Begin with prayer. Spend time each day asking the Spirit for those attributes Paul described, praying for the well being of those who disagree with us, and working to strengthen and deepen our spiritual lives.

From there, take these steps to foster positivity in a time that desperately needs it:

  • Don’t complain. Don’t fret. Don’t obsess with the current state of the world.Remember, God is in charge.
  • Denounce hatred and intolerance wherever you find it.
  • Reject violence, aggression, oppression.
  • Extend love and a positive attitude to all you encounter, even if they hold views significantly different from yours.
  • Be respectful of others and renounce disrespect, especially when it’s targeted at those who disagree with you.
  • Use critical thinking, particularly in your consumption and sharing of media.
  • Take the long view in reacting to the crisis du jour. This, too, shall pass.
  • Finally, in a time when common courtesy seems less and less common, model civility.

Finding the sacred in the secular

Bring your holiness to work with you

I turned down a job at a Catholic social service organization for a position at a pharmaceutical company.

Scandalous for a Christian, right?

Nah. It’s a lesson I’ve been learning my entire career.

One of the biggest challenges of my spiritual journey has been to resist the myth that faith-based workplaces are somehow holier or better than secular workplaces.

We’ve all seen it in our diocesan newspapers, on television, online: praise and adulation for those who have chucked the corporate rat race to work for a charity, to go overseas to help the poor, to use their corporate skills to assist a social service agency.

Don’t get me wrong; those people should be praised. But so should the ones who go to toil at their corporate jobs day in and day out. They bring their faith, their joy, their integrity with them into their office buildings. They can be saints in secular workplaces just as well, maybe even better, than non-profit or faith-based settings.

In my own case, I’ve labored in parishes that were far more dysfunctional than the corporations where I’ve worked. The human resources practices at some of these faith-based organizations seemed to be right out of the 1950s. The approaches to things like work-life balance, conflict management, and constructive feedback on performance were like night and day. And don’t even get me started on the low pay.

The reality is that God has called each of us to a vocation, so it’s God’s call we need to follow, not society’s expectations. As St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Are all apostles? Are all teachers? Are all prophets?” In a word, no. God knows where we can best use the talents we have been given. It’s our job to discern where that is and to tune out society’s expectations when we do.

Some of the saints with reputations for great holiness worked in the kitchen or greeted guests at the door. They knew that these simple tasks, often considered mundane or lowly in the eyes of the world, were carrying out the will of God if done in loving service. Those saints often attracted people from great distances who were drawn to them because of their holiness. Sometimes that holiness resulted in miracles.

St. Andre Bessette is a great, recent example. This humble Christian Brother had little formal education but a very deep prayer life. For 40 years he served as a porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. His prayers, invoking the intercession of St. Joseph, brought about many cures. People would bring their sick to the college to pray with the lowly doorkeeper. When St. Andre died in 1937, it’s said that a million people gathered for his funeral.

We have the same potential to attract in our modern workplaces, although maybe not so dramatically. But we don’t get that message from society. Sometimes we don’t even get that message from the Church. Even so, it’s a successful formula for our lives as Christians: Respond to God’s call wherever that call takes you, bloom where you’re planted, perform your duties with selflessness, integrity, charity, and, yes, even joy.

Those qualities attract, and they are sorely needed in a society steeped in selfishness, pessimism, and cynicism.

“Do small things with great love.” Those words of Mother Teresa summarize our calling.

Neighbor 2015

A new take on an old story

A man was going from North St. Louis County to the Central West End when he was carjacked while sitting at a light on North Kingshighway. The robbers drug him out of the car, pistol whipped him, and took his wallet and phone, along with the car, before leaving him for dead in the street.

The congressman drove by in his town car, but he told his chauffeur not to stop.

The archbishop came by in his well-appointed sedan but steered around the man in the street and kept going.

Finally, a man in an old, beat up coupe with a broken taillight pulled over. He gave the man a drink of water, washed his wounds as best he could, put the man in his passenger seat, and drove him to the Medical Center. Once there, he offered his own credit card to pay the hospital bill and promised to come by the next day to visit.

This man was a radicalized Muslim sympathetic to the Islamic State.

Now you can imagine how the followers of Jesus felt when they heard this parable.

The Tent

Our homes on this earth are only temporary

“…We know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven.” 2 Corinthians 5:1

When Saint Paul describes our earthly home in the second letter to the Corinthians, he doesn’t describe a mansion, or a dwelling made with bricks, stone, or wood. Rather, he describes a tent.desert-tent

A tent is typically a temporary structure, usually one that is portable. As such, it’s an appropriate metaphor for our life on this earth: transitory, finite, fleeting.

This flies in the face of the world’s “wisdom”: obtain as much as you can by whatever means possible, because this life is all that matters. To the Christian, it’s just the opposite: keep your possessions and your worries to a minimum, as all that matters is our service to God as we make our pilgrimage to our heavenly home.

The tent metaphor has several lessons for us:

Travel light. Possessions – and the pursuit of money to obtain them – tend to separate us from God, rather than bringing us closer. Paul describes himself “as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing and yet possessing all things.” (2 Corinthians 6:10) That should be our attitude, as well.

Be nimble. Flexibility is one of the characteristics of a disciple. God may call us to pack up our tents and move on at any time.

Focus on our heavenly home, rather than our earthly one. Relatedly, we need to keep reminding ourselves that our home is not here, regardless of what our senses and society tell us.

Keep events in perspective. Temporal worries, from our own financial or physical health to global-scale events such as wars and natural disasters, can preoccupy us and distract us from our spiritual life. We should pray and act to affect these situations as best we can. However, worrying about things that are out of our control is counterproductive.

Ultimately, we need to realize that God’s in charge, to put our concerns in God’s hands and to recognize that, as serious as things seem to be at this moment, this world will eventually pass away.

Let’s live in our tents with joy but be ready to pack up and move on when God calls.