Sunday Reflection - How are we using our talents?

The Reader's Digest is translated into 15 different languages.  It sells over 28 million copies each month.  Assuming each copy is read by four people, the Reader's Digest touches the lives of 100 million people monthly.  One of the magazine's occasional features is called "Heroes for Today."  For example, some years ago an issue featured three people whom it considered to be heroes for our time.

One of these heroes is Bob Wieland.  When Bob went to Vietnam in 1969, he was six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds.  When he came back from Vietnam a few years later, he was three and a half feet tall and weighed 87 pounds.  Bob had malaria and a temperature of 106 degrees.  He was strapped to a board and packed in ice.  Later he joked, "Outside of having no legs and being a physical wreck, I wasn't in bad shape."  In 1993, nearly 25 years later, at the age of 45, Bob competed in the 26-mile New York Marathon.  He covered the entire distance on his hands, propelling himself along in a leapfrog fashion.

The second Reader's Digest "hero for today" is John Penne, a retired businessman.  He and his wife both developed cancer at the same time.  His wife died, but John lives; and his cancer went into remission.  While driving back and forth from the hospital for regular treatment, John noticed the number of sick people waiting at the hospital's bus stop.  Sometimes the weather was bitter cold and these people, many of them elderly, were obviously in pain.  John went to the local chapter of the American Cancer Society and said, "Give me a car and a little gas money, and I'll volunteer my days driving these unfortunate people home."  For over 15 years now, John has donated all of his time doing just that.

The final hero is a bit different.  He's Bubba Smith.  A former college and pro football star, Bubba won national fame for his beer commercials on television.  In October 1985, Michigan State University honored Bubba by making him the grand marshal of its homecoming parade.  Bubba was thrilled to be back at his old alma mater.  As he rode through the student-lined streets, one side started chanting, "Tastes great!"  The other side chanted back, "Less filling!" It was obvious that Bubba's commercials had impressed a lot of young people.  That night Bubba was deeply disturbed.  At a rally, he saw many of those same students.  Only this time - as they say - they were totally wasted - drunk out of their minds.  Then and there he made a decision.  He would stop doing the beer commercials.  Bubba was concerned that his commercials were influencing a lot of young people.  "I was selling to children," he said.  Bubba's decision cost him a lot of money.  But Bubba was convinced that something more than money was at stake.

All three of these stories put flesh and bones on the central story that the Lord sets before us in today's Gospel.  Each of these individuals were given an opportunity like the servants in today's parable to make some life changing choices in their lives with the gifts and talents God had given them.  It is interesting that the man in the Lord's parable with the least amount of money or talents is the one who made no effort to do anything with his talents.  He probably reasoned that he had so little in comparison to the others that he could be excused.    How different from the first two "heroes for today":  the Vietnam vet and the cancer patient.  If anybody had a legitimate excuse for doing the minimum with the rest of their lives, they did.  Instead they are doing the maximum with their lives.   The final "hero for today" however is a kind of reverse case.  He's more like the man in the parable who was given the largest sum of money. Yet, Bubba' decision was motivated not by selfish concerns but rather by a value beyond fame or money.  He felt a need to make a dramatic statement - one of far more importance than fame or money. 

The point of today's parable and hero stories should be obvious.  How are we using the talents God has given us?  As our liturgical year draws to a close and the Advent Season nears, it is fitting that we ponder St. Paul's words to us this day, "Brothers and sisters, you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night...Therefore, let us not sleep...but let us stay alert and sober.”  In other words, you and I are going to be held accountable for what we do with our talents.  And that day of accountability may be closer than we think.

Let's close with this prayer:

Lord, teach us to be generous.  Teach us to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labor and not to ask for reward, except to know that we are doing your will" - and using our talents to the best of our ability.



Sunday Reflection - Service in Humility

Few Presidents in modern times have elicited the strong emotional reactions as President Donald Trump.  Either you are delighted in the unconventional and ‘tell it like it is’ manner that he exhibits with virtually every tweet or you have a strong visceral reaction of revulsion at his abrasive and ‘un-presidential’ demeanor.  There is no question that in the annals of American Presidents, President Trump will go down in history, for good or ill, as one who has broken the mold when it comes to the character and temperament for an American President.

Political analysts of the 2016 election have stated that it was the Evangelical Christian vote that catapulted Trump to win his relatively thin Electoral College majority.  The President’s late in life ‘conversion’ to the pro-life agenda as well as his vociferous commitment to naming a Supreme Court Justice ‘in the ideological image’ of Justice Antonin Scalia, a promise he kept, were extremely helpful in garnering the vote of this constituency for whom these values played a central motivating force.

In the shadow of the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation, Evangelical Christianity is that branch of the Christian Church for whom the word of God as found in the Scriptures presents the inerrant and foundational core of what it means to be a Christian.  Often viewing the word of God from a fundamentalist perspective, these sacred words are to be interpreted literally.  If the Book of Genesis states that creation took place in seven days, then who are we to say otherwise?  Evangelical Christianity often views the moral dilemmas of contemporary life from a simple or simplistic ‘black and white’ perspective.  Invariably, the defining criterion for virtuous living can be summarized in the simple phrase, “What would Jesus do?”

As we reflect on God’s word this Sunday, our Gospel taken from St. Matthew, presents a dramatic and stirring image of ‘what Jesus did’ when he encountered the duplicity and hypocrisy of the religious leadership of his time, the scribes and the Pharisees.  In contemporary parlance, the term ‘Pharisee’ is synonymous with hypocrisy.  Not so, at the time of Jesus.  Pharisees were the scrupulous keepers of the Law of Moses.  It was their responsibility to keep alive the flame of the Mosaic law that mediated God’s presence and ratified his covenant with them.  However, as is sometimes the case with ‘professional’ religious leadership, the law that they were to mediate to the people was far from their own hearts.  It was precisely this duplicity, this failure to let God’s word and law permeate and transform their own lives that prompted Jesus to righteous judgment against them.

For Jesus, religious integrity has nothing to do with titles and everything to do with conversion of the heart.  And, for Jesus, the first step in that conversion begins with the virtue of humility.  The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word for ‘earth’ or ‘soil.’  Humility, then, is a clear-eyed understanding that all that we have and all that we are comes by way of gift from the One who is the giver of all good gifts.  Humility is the virtue that acknowledges that, in the end, we are not the masters of the universe but rather, we are called to be stewards of all that comes to us by way of gift from the loving hand of our God. 

Hence, from Jesus’ perspective, the greatest leaders, whether religious or political, are ones that understand that their ultimate credibility will be determined in proportion to their ability to humbly serve the needs of others.  The greatest leaders in our world have invariably learned from their brokenness and have humbly acknowledged that greatness will inevitably be found in humble service of their sisters and brothers.

The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.



Thoughts on the "Amoris Laetitia" Controversy

There is a lovely Talmudic story that says, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, even God prays!  He prays that his justice may be tempered by his mercy!  In unpacking the recent controversy over the criticism by 4 Cardinals of the Church (3 retired and 1 now deceased) of Pope Francis’ post Synodal Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, perhaps that saying can provide a helpful point of reference in understanding what is going on here.

First of all, controversy of this nature is not new in the Church.  As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same!  One need only think of the controversy between Peter and Paul in the early Church over the question of whether one had to fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic Law before becoming a Christian.  Critique of authority can be the catalyst for new insight into our understanding of the mysteries of the faith.  However, it can also be demoralizing and destructive of the harmony that hopefully should characterize the household of believers. 

One of the thorny pastoral questions that continues to fester in our church is how to pastorally tend to those whose marriages have failed and are now living in second or subsequent marriages and desire to remain sacramentally active in the Church. 

In the perfect world, one would have recourse to those pastoral aids that the church has established from its very early existence and have developed over the centuries to address this question in a public fashion – namely, the church’s annulment process.  The annulment process is a declaration by church authority that after thorough formal and external or public investigation, the necessary elements that make a marriage to be a true and valid marriage from the church’s perspective, were defective or missing – thus, rendering the marriage invalid because marital consent – the ‘yes’ of marriage - could not build on a foundation that was missing. 

However, ask any priest involved with parish work and he will tell you, that there are always situations that fall outside of the ‘perfect world.’  One of the major challenges can be lack of adequate witnesses to substantiate the allegations of defective consent that are required by the matrimonial juris-prudence of the church.  This is especially the case in second marriages that have existed for decades and the parties’ first marriage may have taken place decades before.  Joe and Mary, now in their 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, who have been faithfully going to mass for decades but not receiving communion, knowing that the sunset years are ‘setting,’ desire to receive the Eucharist.  To presume that they have been living in adultery all these years is a tad bit harsh not to mention judgmental!  While mistakes indeed might have been made, one would think that a church whose ‘justice is tempered by mercy’ might find a reasonable accommodation for these folks who hunger for the Eucharist. 

The provisions of Amoris Laetitia, particularly # 300-305, attempt to provide an extraordinary path for these exceptional cases out of the church’s perennial ‘care for souls.’  It was not the objective of AL to change doctrine, specifically the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but rather to apply a time honored pastoral approach that would put the mercy and care of the individual’s spiritual need and hunger above that of the letter of the law so that the spirit of the law might flourish.  

This is not new in the Church.  Eastern and Orthodox Christians have practiced this approach for centuries, applying what they refer to as oikonomia or the ‘harmonious ordering of the household of believers’ applied to second marriages.  While the West has tended to be somewhat myopically focused on the virtually exceptionalness legality of the validity of first marriages, precluding the possibility of second marriages unless there is a process leading to a declaration of nullity – The East puts priority on the person and their spiritual hunger for sacramental wholeness over the rigidity of the law.  They permit a second and in some cases a third marriage with a ritual that is of a penitential character that opens the door toward reception of the Eucharist.

AL possesses something of the ‘flavor’ of this approach.  It also brings in the time-honored principle of conscience as the final determiner of how one stands before God.  While it is true that we are talking about a ‘well-formed’ conscience, this can occur in a variety of ways including wrestling with the moral conundrum of acknowledging the values that stand behind the law of the unbreakableness of marriage in the face of the existential reality of a time tested second marriage and the subjective desire for spiritual and sacramental wholeness with the Church.  AL speaks of an exceptional way in which the ministers of the church ‘accompany’ these individuals gradually through a penitential process leading to the eventual sacramental embrace of the church via the internal forum, or forum of conscience.  This is not some ‘snap’ decision undermining the church’s teaching from the Lord on the indissolubility of marriage but rather the application of the mercy of the Father toward his prodigal sons and daughters!

It is important to keep in mind that Cardinal Burke who is leading the charge of the critics, is a brilliant ecclesiastical jurist – the law is his world.  In all candor, his years as a front-line pastor in a parish were few.  Francis, on the other hand, is a pastor par excellence.  He knows first-hand the pain that individuals have felt alienated from the sacramental life of the church.  Each of these men speak and lead out of the world views that have shaped their perspectives.

However, one is Peter and the other is not!  It is a tragedy that Cardinal Burke has made public this critique that can undermine the solidarity of the household of believers by questioning the orthodoxy of the Universal Pastor of the Church.  As Catholics, despite what this Cardinal or any Cardinal may posit, as Catholics it is the voice of Peter and his successors that continues to be the criterion by which the deposit of faith is maintained and developed for the good of the church and the care of souls.

The following short video by Bishop Robert Barron, presents an insightful summary of the approach taken by Pope Francis in Amores Laetitia as he upholds our belief in the integrity of marriage while reaching out with a shepherds love and mercy to those who have experienced the pain and heartache of marital failure.