What If I Disagree With The Bishop?

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As a Catholic, I believe that our Bishops are the heirs of the Apostles. They are the teachers and shepherds of our faith. Along with the Pope, they are guided by the Holy Spirit to lead us and instruct us. Jesus commissioned St. Peter to feed His sheep (John 21:15-17) and this remains their role. Jesus didn’t leave us a Bible to teach us and feed us, He left us His Church. The Bishops compiled Holy Scripture a few hundred years after Christ’s resurrection. It’s the Church which St. Paul declares to be “the pillar and foundation of truth” (I Timothy 3:15). It’s the Church that we look to for guidance in our lives.

And yet, there are times when many “good” Catholics may find themselves disagreeing with the Bishops. And this is—drumroll, please—okay. The Bishops are charged to teach the truth of our faith. When they make pronouncements as individuals, or even as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on other matters, their authority is limited. Some issues are not open for debate and these include matters concerned with the dignity of the human person, the sacredness of human life, and the sacramental nature of marriage, among others. But how about when the Bishops express their opinions on carbon emissions or voting processes or (gasp) immigration reform? Then even those “good” Catholics may disagree. This just makes common sense. Euthanasia and abortion are quite different matters from things like a secure national border or the use of voter identification cards.

Catholics, just like everyone else, have minds and consciences given to us by God. He wants us to make prudent use of them. We can debate among ourselves and we can charitably question our Bishops when we draw different conclusions than they do. This is what a family does. Disagreeing, done with respect and in an effort to mutually understand one another is a healthy process. We don’t check our minds at the door when we go to Mass.

In these past days and weeks, the issue of immigration is very much in the news. We’ve seen Bishops celebrating Mass at the border. We know that some Bishops are encouraging the reception of foreign citizens into their cities. Many Bishops have issued statements encouraging some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. Legislation that attempts to regulate a “pathway to citizenship” process is frequently mentioned. The USCCB has outlined a program that they recommend including a foreign-worker program, the reunification of separated families, ensuring due-process for migrants and seeking long-term solutions to the causes of migration. The Bishops also recognize the legitimate role of the U.S. government in securing our borders and intercepting those attempting to enter our country by illegal means (Comprehensive Immigration Reform, USCCB, August 2013).

In a perfect world, people seeking a better life for themselves and their families would be freely able to seek out better circumstances without undue hardship. But this is far from a perfect world and in our striving for workable solutions, we struggle and we disagree—even with our Bishops. For the sake of our faith, our country and furthering social justice, we have to keep talking with one another. Our Bishops have to listen to opposing solutions and the faithful have to be open to compromise. All of us have to be patient and prayerful. We need to respect each other’s opinions and work together to find a way out of this complicated immigration mess.

This is a good time to recall an old Catholic prayer for guidance:

“Lord, guide us in Your gentle mercy, for left to ourselves we cannot do Your will. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit. One God, forever and ever. Amen.”

A simple way to take measure of a country is to look at how many want in…and how many want out.”
—Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister of the UK
(1997 – 2007)

The Family Papist

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Several years ago my brother began to do some serious research on our family history. And by “serious” I mean he spent untold hours compiling hundreds of pages of information about our forbears. He and my sister-in-law have pored over countless census records, courthouse archives and online resources. They’ve slogged through cemeteries looking for graves and talked with dozens of fellow family detectives. The results of their work is an amazing history of our families. My brother said it was his hope to find each one of our ancestors as they set foot in America—and he has done just that Of course every family has their own story of genesis and expansion, of triumph and heartbreak, and ours is no different. The gift that he’s given to us is an amazing one and I can never thank him enough for finding our own unique story.

I’ll admit that I never spent a lot of time thinking of where our people had come from or what had led them to this country. But now that I’m getting older, looking back has a certain kind of comfort to it. Thanks to my brother, we can do that now. Several of our ancestors came over on the Mayflower and others were among the settlers at Jamestown. Many fought in the Revolutionary War, all of them as rebels against King George and his oppression. We have soldiers in the Civil War as well, all of them on the side of the South. But not all ancestors were soldiers. We come from a long line of farmers, coopers, wheelwrights and tanners. A few ancestors were in government or ministry. Some came to this country as indentured servants. Others were colonial governors and landholders, with responsibility for those dependent on them for their livelihoods. Along the way, they married and had families, which is where folks like I come in. When I hear their stories, I look for what inspired them and kept them going as they made their way from England and Scotland and Wales, across a vast ocean, to this new land that wasn’t yet a country.

For our earliest family members, it was their faith in Christ which led them to the New World. They were members of protestant sects who felt that they could be more free to worship as they chose if they came here. They felt the established protestant churches had become corrupted. They disliked anything that hinted at Catholicism. In all his extensive research, my brother has found NO Catholics in our family tree. Since the voyage of the Mayflower, all our ancestors are some kind of protestant: Separatists, Anabaptists, Puritans and the more familiar varieties of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. I wonder what they’d think of me?

I chose to enter the Catholic Church because of the Holy Eucharist. I believe Jesus when He told us He is the Bread of Heaven. I believe His words at the Last Supper. When I look at the history of Christianity, I believe the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ on St. Peter (Matthew 16:18). I believe Jesus when He tells us He will be with His Church always and I cling to that truth. I’m faithful to our Pope as the successor of St. Peter. I believe He is chosen and guided by the Holy Spirit and can never lead the Bride of Christ into error. I believe in all the articles of my faith which my ancestors chose to leave behind. But are we really so different?

Granted,their journey across the Atlantic was dangerous, lengthy and life-threateneing. All I did was to symbolically swim the Tiber River. My becoming Catholic didn’t mean that I had to leave my family and friends or to make a life for myself in a new country. But really, it did. I immigrated into a land of great history and populated by Saints and a Queen I barely knew. I pledged myself to a creed that is more than seven times older than America. In a journey only The Lord Himself could have foreseen, I became a Papist. My family’s lengthy legacy of “separatism” had come to a sudden end when I was embraced by the Catholic Church. I wonder what my long line of protestant grandfathers and grandmothers would make of that? I’d like to think they understand what faith can call of us to do with our lives. I’d like to think they’d welcome me as I take my place in our family as a pilgrim of a different sort, having come “home to Rome,” after a long and eventful absence.

“It’s the Catholic Church who calls you “separated brethren,” she who feels the awful loss.”

—-Flannery O’Connor

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Parenthood At Any Cost?

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There’s a concrete block building in Anand, India that squats in the dirt and swarms with people. At 9 am it’s already packed and the temperature is a sweltering 107 degrees. Women gather here every morning at the Akansha Fertility Clinic to meet with doctors and families. On the walls inside the doorway are newspaper clippings about the clinic and what goes on inside it. The most telling of these headlines proclaims simply: “The Cradle of the World.” You see, the Akansha Clinic makes babies. The doctors there recruit women interested in donating their eggs or in serving as surrogate mothers. They buy eggs and rent wombs, to put it in the most basic terms.

The clinic provides its services to Indian women and couples, but most of their customers come from Europe and North America, specifically the United States. Couples who have not been able to conceive children come to India looking for a surrogate mother to carry their baby for them. The wife undergoes hormone injections to produce multiple eggs which are then surgically-harvested, fertilized with sperm and implanted into the uterus of a surrogate. The cost for this procedure in India can be around $12,000 which is much less than the $75 – $100,000 cost in the U.S. Typically the surrogate mother receives around $5,000 which is an enormous amount of capital for most families in India. That much can change a family’s life drastically.

We in the West have come to believe that parenthood is a right rather than a gift from God. Anyone at any time and in any life circumstance (single, married, gay, elderly) has the right to parent a child. So when that doesn’t happen, India’s fertility clinics become an affordable option. Eggs are available as well as the hormonally-primed wombs in which to implant them. Clinics like the one in Anand are where the pain of poverty and the despair of childlessness meet.

Fully 75% of all fertilized eggs (=babies) fail to implant. We we create children in a lab knowing that only 25% of them have a chance to be born. Surrogacy agreements, which vary widely and have limited legality and enforceability in many areas, allow for all kinds of abuse. Pregnancy “brokers”, questionable medical practices and murky or non-existent record-keeping can make the entire process a minefield for everyone involved. Especially for the child. Some agreements require that mandatory in-utero testing which reveals any kind of defect in the child result in a forced abortion. At times, the egg or sperm used in conception is found to have come from an unknown donor.. Who are the child’s parents in cases like this? This week, a co-host on ABC’s “The View” revealed her involvement in a tragic surrogacy situation. Sherri Shepherd was fired from the show in the middle of a nasty divorce from her husband. The couple had arranged for a surrogate mother recently and the baby is due to be born next month. Now Ms. Shepherd says she no longer wants the child and will not off any support for him or her. She claims no connection to the baby since her eggs were not used in the procedure. Who is the mother of this child? Who will love and protect this baby?

Artificial birth-control separates sex from procreation. Our culture separates sex from marriage and marriage from the foundation of motherhood and fatherhood. Our science has allowed us to make children without parents and has turned them into a commodity that we can make cling to life in a rented womb. Whatever we don’t want or find convenient, we can easily abort. And yet we wonder why there are so many divorces, so many troubled children and unhappy and broken families. We shake our heads and we form task-forces. We look to government and social programs for the answers. We place the blame on the targets we each like best. And while we’re busy pointing fingers here in America, there’s a line of women forming at a squat concrete building halfway around the world. They’re getting their injections and having their scans and waiting to be chosen next.

We must remember that life begins at home and we must also remember that the future of humanity passes through the family.”
—Blessed Mother Teresa

Land of the Free – ish

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I’m writing this on Independence Day, so expect words like “freedom” and “God-given rights” to make their appearance. This is why we celebrate our country on the fourth day of July. This past week’s Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case has already been discussed at length in most media. You’ve heard the arguments on both sides. You’ve formed your own opinion about the findings. But let me remind you why this case is so very important.

Our country was founded on the belief that our right to live a free life is given to us by God and not by any government. Liberty is an “unalienable right” ordained by God, not by a Congress or President or Supreme Court. So whenever our liberty is infringed upon or caged or in some way lessened, we should all take notice and fight against it. No matter what you believe about contraception, the Hobby Lobby case is really about liberty. This is important to remember. Both sides have done a pretty good job at explaining their arguments. As a Catholic, my faith teaches me that any form of artificial contraception goes against God’s plan for our lives. Others believe differently, and that is their right. The issue in this case might have been something other than contraception. What is at stake is whether or not government can override the liberty given to us by our Creator.

But because the case involved contraception, many have missed the central point. They have reacted to the emotions that surround a subject like contraception instead of peeling away feelings and opinions and politics and looking at the real core of what our government has attempted to do.

I’m asking you to try and look at the Hobby Lobby case without seeing contraception as the argument. This is hard. But if you can I think you’ll realize just how terrifying it would have been if the Supreme Court had ruled differently. Let’s say the majority of the justices had found that it was indeed constitutional for government to force a company (and by extension, an individual) to buy something that violated their strongly-held beliefs. Let’s lay aside those items and practices like car insurance or driving licenses that we purchase since they include a responsibility for the common welfare. Focus on individual beliefs and personal freedoms. Let’s say our government made a law that required you to buy a large green balloon for display on your front porch. Failure to do this would get you a $5000 per day fine. You strongly believe that this goes against your rights as a free American. You believe that your rights include refusing to purchases items that violate your God-given freedom to choose how to spend the money you’ve earned. The green balloon has nothing to do with your religious beliefs but it represents the intrusion of government into your personal life and liberty. That green balloon takes away from your quality of life and disposable income. It’s an impediment to your pursuit of happiness as a free American. You don’t want it. You don’t need it. And yet you’re forced to buy it and even forced to provide them to your employees. You wonder what the government will force you to buy (to do, to accept, to believe) next?

This is where we find ourselves in America in 2014. In the Hobby Lobby case, the nine justices voted 5-4 in favor of liberty. For now. The question must now be—how could 4 of the justices NOT have voted for liberty? Why wasn’t liberty upheld unanimously by the highest court of our land? This is a frightening thing. We find ourselves only one vote away from the loss of our God-given freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness, as our founders envisioned. The Hobby Lobby case should wake us up. We are “this” close to living in a very different country.

The God Who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”
—-Thomas Jefferson

You’re In The Army Now

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It’s been said that in order to win any war, you have to know three things: that you ARE at war, who your enemies are, and what weapons or strategies can defeat them. If you’re a Christian, then you’re at war. St. Paul wrote a lot about the war we’re in: the war of faith. Personally, each of us is called to “fight the good fight of the faith” (I Timothy 6:12). It’s our daily struggle to live our life in submission to the will of God. We struggle against the inclinations of our own natures which were broken by original sin. We also fight against sinister spiritual forces whose purpose is our downfall (Ephesians 6:12). And on a larger scale, we are members of the Church Militant, the members of God’s own family struggling to reach our heavenly home.

But some of us aren’t being very good soldiers. The old joke tells of the pastor standing at the church doors, shaking hands with the people as they leave after Mass. As Joe tries to pass by, the priest grabs him by the hand and pulls him aside. “Joe,” says the pastor, “you need to join the army of God!” Joe replies, “I’m already in the army of God, Father.” “Then how come I only see you here at Christmas and Easter?,” the priest asks. And Joe whispers back, “Sssshhhh….I’m in the Secret Service.” Unfortunately for Joe, the fight we are in doesn’t have light duty or rear guard positions. We’re all on the front lines every day. If you aren’t fully prepared and personally engaged in the battle, you’re headed for defeat. So how do we “fight the good fight?” We submit ourselves to the will of God. We obey His commandments–all ten of them–and we cultivate our relationship with God and our neighbor. St. Paul tells Timothy (and us) to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (I Timothy 6:11). By keeping the “new” commandment of loving God and our neighbor, we wage war against our selfish natures, the lure of the world, and the workings of Satan.

Some Christians believe that the battle was won when Christ conquered sin and death once and for all on the Cross. And He did win the victory, but the number of casualties is still to be determined. As long as so many of us believe there is no battle, that we’re guaranteed heaven no matter what we do, then the casualties will mount. Satan delights when the children of Christ deny his existence and allow him to gain a foothold in the body of Christ. If the battle was over, St. Paul wouldn’t tell us to “put on the armor of God”(Ephesians 6:11). You don’t need armor if you aren’t headed into battle. We must wear truth as our belt, justice as our breastplate, zeal for the Gospel as our shoes, faith as our shield, salvation as our helmet and the word of God as our sword. In other words, we must immerse ourselves in the Church that God gave to us as the pillar of truth (I Timothy 3:15). The Church gives us the Sacraments founded by Jesus as the source of His grace. In them, we are joined to Christ in baptism, strengthened in confirmation, forgiven in confession, and nourished by His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. Only by living each day as loving members of His Church can we encourage and support one another in the journey towards the battle’s final, forever victory.

Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather the sword!” — Luke 12:51

A Heart For Jesus

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I’m a weeper. I thought about using the word “crier” but that implies something rather dignified and demure. Picture a tight shot of a beautiful Ingrid Bergman as a perfect tear slides slowly down her flawless cheek. This does NOT describe me. I weep. Great gasping gulps of air in between baleful bellows and bursts of waterworks. Imagine a Bigfoot howling underwater and you’ll have a pretty good idea. And I weep at lots of stuff. Sad songs, of course. The National Anthem, certainly. Puppies. Kittens. To be honest, almost anything, given the right mood. It’s been this way all my life and I blame it on my grandfather. He was what we in the South call “tender-hearted.” Every summer my family would make the long drive to Texas to spend a week or two with him and my grandmother. At the end of our time with them, we’d pile into the car for our drive back to Georgia as my grandfather stood weeping and waving to us in his driveway. He was my kindred spirit.

Someone with this personality trait, like me, has come by it naturally. It’s part of our makeup, of how we relate to the world. It’s probably part genetics and part how we were raised and the examples set for us by the people in our lives. Knowing that my grandfather and I were both teary types always made me feel closer to him. It also made me feel a little bit better about the waterworks. But there’s a different kind of tender-heartedness that’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. In this way, our hearts are conformed to the heart of Jesus.

Jesus was definitely tender-hearted. But not the merely weepy type like me and my grandfather. Jesus cried for his friend, Lazarus. And then He raised him from the dead. He wept over Jerusalem. And then He suffered and died for her salvation. He tenderly poured out His life in the Holy Eucharist the very night that the men with whom He’d shared it would abandon and betray Him. Yet “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Jesus’ tender heart is courageous and strong. Throughout His public ministry, both His heart and His mission proclaimed love, mercy, and holy purpose. “I have set my face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7). His tender heart led Him to the Cross.

To have a heart that is tender and open like Jesus’ Sacred Heart, is also to conform our will to His will. His tender love was a love that called a sin by its name and with the clarity of His light and justice. Jesus was tender to the sinner but never soft on sin. We’re called to follow Him. Our hearts must be just as eager to root out and name our own sins. A tender heart is one that is frequently tilled and weeded by our examination and repentance. Frequent confession is a great “tenderizer” as the Church knows and teaches. Tender hearts seek Jesus in prayer, which is our lifeline to a relationship with Him. We learn to deny ourselves so that we can become more like our Lord, who poured out His heart in love for us. And so we are also charged with service and giving of ourselves. Among the primary acts of our service is to forgive. Tender hearts reach out to those who have wronged us and offer them mercy, like our Lord does. We give our hearts away despite knowing that sometime they’ll be trod upon. We look at Christ’s courage in loving and trusting others and we imitate Him. Tender hearts don’t carry grudges. We are vulnerable to the pain caused by other people and we love them anyway. Even when we’re hurt, we remain sensitive to the pain of others. We comfort, we console. We mourn with those who grieve. Tears shed out of love for another’s pain are precious to Jesus. We shed them freely.

I’m thankful for those early memories of my sweet grandfather who cried for me as I left him each summer. He showed me I wasn’t alone in being quick to cry out of love. When someone called me “tender-hearted” I felt close to him and it made me feel less different. My life is richer for it and my faith is nourished by my tears. You’ll know when you see me at Mass—I’m the one at the end of the pew, always looking for a tissue.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
—Ephesians 4:32

Tender Mercy

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Several years ago when I was going through a difficult period in my life, I let my heart be filled with bitterness and resentment. I had been hurt by people I had thought were my friends. I became consumed with feelings of betrayal and anger. I spent (wasted) my time nurturing those feelings. I was going nowhere, except into a hardened and sinful place. I was more concerned with holding onto my grievances than I was with allowing God to heal me of my pain. Until I was ready to forgive, how could Jesus forgive me? So one night I wrote down the names of all the people who had wronged me. I held the list in my hands and began to pray for each one of them by name. It was tough. At first I’ll admit that only a tiny piece of my heart was involved when I prayed. But as I continued with it day after day I felt myself letting go of the anger and hurt. I didn’t forget what had been done, but I was able to lay my hurts and resentments at the foot of the Cross. In return, God gave me His mercy and peace. For the first time in a long time, I was free.

Looking back, I can only wonder at the weeks and months I had invested in all that anger. I let it take over my life and rob me of my joy. I gave it permission to be in control, instead of welcoming Christ’s mercy into my heart. This is something nearly all of us deal with at one time or another. One famous family experienced the pain of separation and estrangement over a lack of forgiveness and the price they paid for it was enormous.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one of the most well-known Victorian poets. Growing up in England, she was the oldest of twelve children. Elizabeth began writing poems in childhood and despite a lifelong battle with poor health, she continued to be a prolific poet. Her courtship with Robert Browning produced a multitude of letters famously detailing their love for one another. But Elizabeth’s father was completely opposed to their relationship. After they married, she was disinherited and her father never forgave her and never spoke with her again. The newlyweds moved to Italy and she never saw her dad again. Despite his hard feelings towards her, Elizabeth continued to faithfully write to him for many, many years. Towards the end of her life, she received a large box filled with the letters she’d written to her father—all of them unopened and unread. Because he couldn’t forgive her for loving Robert Browning, her father had missed out on knowing his daughter.

When you get right down to it, not forgiving someone who has wronged you is a sin of pride. You and your grudges become more important than anything else—family relationships included. You think you know best. You believe that your hurt feelings have priority over anything else. They almost take on a life of their own and you nourish and encourage them by remembering how you were wronged and treated unfairly. It’s all me, me, me. Your memories build a prison around your heart and that’s the definition of pride.

Who do you need to forgive today? Are you estranged from someone in your family? Forgiveness and reconciliation are a gift you can give to yourself. Even if the other person never admits how they hurt you. It’s not about them. It doesn’t mean that you weren’t hurt or betrayed, it just means that you no longer choose to hold onto that hurt anymore. Ask The Lord to help you do this. It might take a while, but that’s okay, too. Little by little you’ll feel a burden being lifted and grace will lead you through it. Don’t waste time losing out on love.

When you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
—Mark 11:25

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