Praying For Egypt

It’s been an amazing year in Egypt. Following weeks of demonstrations, finally their leader resigned (or was overthrown) and their Parliament and Constitution were dissolved. Now the people of Egypt can begin to choose their own future. Recent elections are still being certified, but it appears that many posts are going to be held by fundamentalist Muslims. As Americans, we have political and economic interests in Egypt. We’re rightfully concerned about what happens next. As Christians, we should also be aware of the deep roots of our faith in Egypt and the treatment of its minority Christian population. Their faith in Christ is ancient and enduring and they are our spiritual brothers and sisters in a hostile land.
Egyptian Christians are called “Copts” which is the Greek word for “Egyptian.” St. Mark the Evangelist first brought Christianity to Egypt in 42 AD, just 9 years after the Resurrection of Christ. He landed in Alexandria and began to preach the Gospel and to ordain priests and bishops of the Church. After his death, in 68 AD, he was buried in a chapel in Alexandria. The Christian faith grew rapidly and by the 3rd century, Christians made up the majority of the Egyptian population. Some of the best known Church Fathers including St. Clement, St. Athanasius and Origen were Coptic Christians. By the end of the 5th century, there were hundreds of monastaries and thousands of churches throughout Egypt. Many of the important Church Councils which defined our beliefs as Christians were presided over by Egyptian bishops. The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) was led by St. Alexander and gave us the Nicene Creed which we proclaim at Mass every Sunday. Likewise, Coptic bishops presided over the Councils of Constantinople (381 AD), Ephesus (431 AD), and Chalcedon (451 AD). It’s hard to understate the deep and lasting legacy that Egyptian Christians have had on our faith. Yet in the 7th century, Arabs invaded Egypt and centuries of repression and persecution for Christians followed. While Coptic Christians comprise about 20% of Egypt’s population, historically they’ve controlled about half the country’s wealth. This has made them an object of persecution by the Muslim majority. They have long been the subject of political isolation and have been excluded from their share of parliamentary representation. Coptic churches, businesses and private homes have been attacked and vandalized. Physical assaults and attacks are not uncommon. Reports of young Coptic girls being kidnapped and sold into the sex trade are frequent. Christians wishing to build a church must apply for presidential permission. Colleges deny admission to Christians while conversion to Christianity is punishable by imprisonment and torture. As a result, many thousands of Copts have fled Egypt over the last decades. With the political changes currently underway, and violence against Christians on the increase, doubtless many more thousands will flee over the next months and years.
The recent unfolding revolution could be a momentous event in the history of Egyptian Christianity. A true democracy could insure that the rights and dignity of all people are protected and upheld. A political system based on sharia law would make conditions even worse for Egyptian Christians. This ancient land once sheltered our Lord Jesus and His parents when they fled to avoid persecution and death. Egypt hid Christ in her ancient shadows and protected Him from harm. In gratitude and hope, we must pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt. This ancient root of our faith lies at a turning point in history. We ask God to guide her people into the light of democracy and to protect our suffering Coptic Christian family. Amen.
“Rejoice, O Egypt because you have torn open your pagan heart to shelter Christ and receive Him in you, for He will lift you to His house.”
–St. John Saba (7th century)
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Welcome, Sinners

The pastor is boring and his homilies put you to sleep.  The only time he gets excited is when he’s asking for money for some project or other.  The choir director chooses songs that no one can sing and that would sound better sung around a campfire than during Mass around the altar of God.  There’s a clique of women in the church who control everything that goes on and make it their duty to discourage any new ideas.  The youth program spends more time raising money for parties and trips than it does teaching the Gospel.  The church building is ugly and in need of repairs and don’t even ask about the parking lot mess!  The men’s group is great at arranging golf dates but that’s about all they do.  There’s no place to put the crying babies during Mass.  The social hall is a crowded and delapidated cavern where no one cleans up after themselves.  The audio system is terrible, the carpet needs replacing and the whole place could use a new paint job.  And the people in the pews?  They sit stone-faced and unsmiling, like they’re next in line at the dentist’s office.  Most of them seem spiritually asleep, or worse.

 
Sound familiar?  Maybe you’ve been a member of a parish where some of these comments were true.  Or maybe they’re true of the church you attend right now.  One thing you can be sure of:  there’s no such thing as a perfect parish.  Every faith family is like our earthly family, made up of imperfect, flawed people who love God and each other in our own imperfect and flawed ways.  We struggle with doubt and unbelief.  We hang on to past hurts and grievances.  We’re impatient and demanding at times, unkind and hurtful at others.  We don’t love consistently or very well.  We’re selfish and short-sighted and rarely forgive the trespasses of others.  In short, we’re sinners.
 
And yet God always says to us, “Follow Me.”  You.  Yes, you.  That sinner in the fourth pew, aisle seat on the lefthand side of the church.  “You.  Follow Me.”  Because it’s not about the pastor or the music or the parking lot.  It’s not about the men’s group or the ladies’ group or the youth group.  The size of the church doesn’t matter.  What matters is what you do in response to His call to follow Him.  You can worship in a grand cathedral with marble and gold everywhere and if you don’t have a love relationship with Jesus Christ, your heart will be as dry as dust.  Because we’re sinners, sometimes we focus on what’s not so important and let those inconvenient details of parish life distract us from Whom we come together to worship.  Mass isn’t something the Church invented to keep us entertained.  Mass is the celebration of His sacrifice that Jesus gave to His Church at the Last Supper.  More than that, the Mass is the very same sacrifice of Christ on His Holy Cross.  When you’re in the pew next Sunday, you’re answering part of Jesus’ call to love and to know Him.  Don’t let the small stuff get in the way of the most important relationship you’ll ever have.  Follow Him with your whole heart.  Love Him with your whole life.  Let Him share His life with you.  Let your life bear the fruit of Christ in your parish.  Follow Him and let your light shine.
 
“The best argument against Christianity is…..Christians.” 
                                   — G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

Vote Life!

Unless you’ve been on the moon, you know it’s election season.  Before November, we’ll be courted and commercialed by every candidate on the national, state, and local level.  We’ll listen to their message and make our decision.  As we walk into that booth in November, we need to have done our research and homework.  For Catholics, there are some issues on which we can’t compromise.  Look.  I’m not a priest or a bishop.  I’m just a lay person who loves my country and my faith.  I’m not writing this to tell you who to vote for.  I’m just sharing how my faith in Christ informs my voting choices.  I want to use my vote to give honor to the values of my country and to give glory to the God I worship.  Anyone who tells you that faith and politics don’t mix is a liar.  If your faith values aren’t reflected in your voting choices you aren’t helping to build the kingdom of God.  Just my opinion.  Voting is how we build our civic community.  And I want my vote in that process to be one that upholds the values of my faith. 
 
To begin with, forget political parties.  If you want your vote to reflect your faith, you can’t assume that just because someone is a Republican, that they’re automatically going to support a pro-life agenda.  And you can’t assume every Democrat wants to fund abortion.  This is especially true at the state and local levels.  This means you really have to do your homework.  Visit the candidate’s website and if you can’t get your questions or concerns answered there, send them an email or call their local office.  Believe me, it’s worth the effort to ask questions before you’re standing in that voting booth.  And just because a candidate is Catholic or evangelical doesn’t mean they share your values, either.  Look at their voting records, read their position statements and find out what they stand for.
 
The issue of life is at the heart of Catholic voting choices.  There are 5 particular activities which the Church considers “non-negotiable.”  That is to say, we can’t in good conscience vote for a candidate who supports any or all of them.  These are abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and homosexual “marriage.”  Abortion is the willful killing of an innocent child in the womb.  Candidates who support abortion by funding it or by funding organizations which support abortion must be defeated.  If the candidate will be in the position to appoint judges at the state or federal level, will they use their power to appoint judges who will support life?  Euthanasia or “mercy-killing” is the practice of taking action to end a life before the person’s natural death.  Catholics support hospice care and palliative care that eases pain and suffering.  But we can’t support actions that purposefully hasten death such as the removal of devices which provide a person with nutrition or hydration or the use of powerful medications which cause their death.  Embryonic stem cell research uses fertilized human eggs.  These are babies.  Any use of human embryos in scientific research is the murder of human life.  Since adult stem cell research is so much more promising in terms of science and medicine, there’s no place for embryonic cell use in our country.  Human cloning is any attempt to create a human life by using the same cell cloning techniques which scientists have use to clone or twin sheep, dogs and other animals.  Lastly, the issue of homosexual “marriage” is, for Catholics, non-negotiable.  Marriage is a sacramental covenant between one man and one woman.  Marriage is at the heart of family life in which new life is given to us by God. 
 
So, it’s as simple and as complicated as those five issues.  Beyond these five lie the full array of all the other social, economic and political concerns of our time.  But if we lose on these issues, I believe we’re truly lost as a country and as a culture.  If we fail to recognize and value the gift of life, I’m afraid nothing else really matters much.  Perhaps we can work together to rebuild our economy.  Someday the housing market may rebound.  In a few years maybe everyone who wants to work may have a good job.  Maybe our foreign policy will one day put an end to our terrorist enemies.  But if we fail to support the right to life and fail to protect and defend life and family, America will be like a beautiful apple which is lovely to look at, but which is rotten at its core.  At least that’s what I believe and it’s how my Catholic faith leads me to decide who gets my vote.  God bless America.
 
“The Gospel of life must be proclaimed and human life defended in all places and times.”
                                        –Blessed Pope John Paul II to U.S. Catholics, 1998

I Am The Prodigal

Nothing feels as good as coming home.  Whether it’s at the end of an especially tiresome workday or coming home for the first time in many years — home is the place at the heart of our souls.  It’s where we are most ourselves.  It’s where we are energized and made whole again.  Home is so much more than a house.  While the walls and floors and furnishings may be the physical parts of a home, the soul of a home is the family within it.  Family gives us life and our beginning.  If we’re blessed with a loving and supportive family, home is where we long to be, no matter our age or circumstances.  Home grounds us, refreshes us and lets us rest and become our truest selves.  Home embraces us, revives us, and allows us to dream.  Home gives us permission to be loved.
 
Home is what the prodigal son had lost.  He’d left home with his share of his father’s estate and hit the road.  He’d lived the high life and spent all his attentions on himself. “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation” (Luke 15:13).  Finally he hit bottom.  Out of money and the friends money had bought for him, he found a job feeding scraps to a farmer’s pigs.  For a Jew, working with swine was the lowest job in the world.  Starving, he remembered his father and their home.  He thought to himself: “I shall get up and to to my father” (Luke 15:18).  The prodigal wants to go home.
 
Catholics hear this parable and we think of ourselves as the prodigal son or daughter.  God, our Father, has given us the gift of life and everything in it.  Our home with Him is one of joy and light and peace that surpasses understanding.  We are His beloved children and heirs.  And yet, this isn’t enough for us.  We want even more and we think we can find “more” away from His home, out in the world.  And so we leave.  We try our own way.  We leave our home behind.  We try to forget our Father’s ways.  We try new ways with new people.  We go from place to place and relationship to relationship, always looking for something, but never really knowing what.  We work.  We play.  But we’re starving inside.  Our heart longs for….home.  And the house and the love of our Father. 
 
There’s a wonderful and very revealing verse in the parable of the prodigal son.  He’s on the journey home and “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20).  This tells us so much about our loving God.  He has made us as His beautiful children, loved by Him since the beginning of time.  He made the universe just for you and for me.  And from the moment of Adam’s sin, He put in place a people and a plan to draw us back to His heart and to our true home in heaven.  Yet we forsake our inheritance because we think we can find our own way in the world.  We believe we know what’s best for us.  We stop praying.  We stop reading His Word.  We stop going to Mass.  We invest our time and treasure in the things of the world.  And the world leaves us cold and alone and starving for the Truth.  In each of our lives there comes a moment, or a series of moments, when we realize there is no peace outside the Father’s home.  It’s this soul-satisfying peace that we so desperately long for and we find missing in our lives away from Him.  St. Augustine sums it up beautifully when he writes: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Something brings us to our knees—a broken relationship, an addiction, a financial loss, the death of a loved one—and our broken hearts long for the healing forgiveness and mercy of our Father.  Like the prodigal, we want to go home.
 
Jesus has always been looking for us to come back to Him. Every day, He has peered down the road of our lives, hoping to see us return to Him.  No matter how long we’ve been away from Him and His Church, He never forgets our face and our heart.  His longing has been to enfold us in His loving arms and welcome us home as His child and the heir to His Kingdom.  No sin can separate us from the love of Christ.  The story of the prodigal son teaches us how precious we are to Jesus and how much joy we give Him when we come back home to Him.  Jesus has never ceased to think of us and love us and want us back.  When we come to Him on our knees and admit sorrow for our sins, His mercy and love embraces us.  Like the prodigal’s father, He longs to give us a party with the finest food and drink.  And He does.  Christ gives us Himself in the Sacrifice and Celebration of the Holy Mass.  There, at His altar, we are truly home.  We find peace there, and our heart’s desire..  We, who once were dead, are now alive again.  We were lost, and now are found.
 
“God is waiting for us, like the father in the parable, with open arms, even though we don’t deserve it.”
                                                —St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei

His Mother, Our Mother

Mary is the Mother of God.
Why would such a simple statement cause some Christians apprehension?  The title “Mother of God” has been applied to Mary since the earliest days of the Church.  “The Virgin Mary, being obedient to His word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God.” (St. Irenaeus, 189 A.D.)  All of Christ’s followers believe that Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ and that Jesus Christ is God.  It would follow logically that Mary is the Mother of God.  Sacred Scripture affirms that Mary is the Mother of God when her cousin Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit proclaimed:  “And why is it granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43)
 
Being the Mother of God does not mean that Mary is somehow “older” than God, or that she created God, or originated Christ’s divinity, or that she is herself, divine.  Mary is a person made by God whose faith in Him allowed the Incarnation of our Saviour.  The Council of Ephesus was held by the Church in 431 A.D. and one of the outcomes of this Council was to declare the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God.  In Greek, the title is “Theotokos” or “God-bearer.”  At the time, there were some in the Church who were teaching that Mary gave birth to Christ, but not God.  Taught by Nestor, the bishop of Constantinople, this heresy held that Christ was a human person who was joined to the Second Person of the Trinity.  Nestor believed that the human Jesus dies on the Cross, but not the divine Jesus.  These teachings were found to be heresy because they deny both the Incarnation and our redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection.
 
The truth is that Mary said “yes” to the Lord and gave birth to a person, Jesus Christ, not a nature.  Women give birth to babies, not natures; to people, not bodies.  Christ is fully God and fully man in a mystery of faith that we can’t comprehend with our limited understanding.  The Gospel tells us that the Word did not unite with man, but was made man.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  But Mary wasn’t merely a human incubator.  She was called by God to be His Mother in every sense of the word.  She nursed Him, cared for Him, comforted Him and raised Him up in a Godly home.
 
So, if Mary is the mother of Jesus and Jesus is truly God, then Mary is the Mother of God.  Calling Mary “the mother of Jesus” but denying her the title of “Mother of God” diminishes Jesus, for it denies that He is truly and fully God.  Furthermore, if we believe, as Scripture tells us, that Christ is our Brother, then Mary is our Mother, too. 
 
Some might say that “paying all this attention to Mary distracts us from God.”  Mary is the loveliest of God’s creatures, the one He handpicked to bring Salvation into the world.  How can any of His creation distract us from the Creator?  A beautiful sunset, a waterfall, a fragrant forest — doesn’t creation bring us closer to God? In honoring Mary, God’s masterpiece, we praise the Master, the Divine Artist.  Others might say that “I don’t need Mary if I have Jesus.”  Why not say “I don’t need the rest of my family if I have my father?”  The Church is a single body; the different members inter-relate and rely on one another.  “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ ” (I Col. 12:21)  Jesus is our Saviour and Redeemer, the Alpha and the Omega.  His loving Mother, Mary, became our Mother as she watched her Son die on the Cross.  He gave her to us at that moment, as a gift of His love. (John 19:26-27)  Embracing Mary as the Mother of God, as our Mother, draws us ever closer to the Saviour.
 
“The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience:  what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.”           —-St. Irenaeus, 189 A.D.
 

The Call to Mission

He sat reading the letter over and over, with unbelief and a little dread.  After all, this was a letter from the Pope himself, and he’d rarely been the subject of a papal communication.  The Holy Father was ordering him to go to France and preach the Gospel there.  Leaving his Italian home would be hard, but he was a priest of God and would go wherever he was needed.  He’d take a friend and fellow-priest with him as well as a treasured deacon.  Folding the letter, he put it away and set about getting ready for his mission….and praying.
 
Six months later, he and his two companions were standing on the banks of the Seine, looking down at an island in the middle of the river.  That was the spot they’d chosen to plant their church.  The village of Paris spread out before the three men. Some barracks for the Roman troops who were there.  A scattering of support buildings like stables and kitchens.  Lean-to rooms of wattle and daub in small groupings on the low hills with communal cooking fires outside, where the villagers lived.  Animals and mud everywhere.  And the smell.  The churchmen knew they had their work cut out for them.  This was a place where native religion mixed with Roman idolatry.  The soldiers occupying this area were hostile to Christianity.  The pagan Celtic people, the Parisii, were a violent tribe who fought the Roman occupation at any opportunity and had made it clear they didn’t need a new God.  Paris was a violent, hostile community.  It was perfect ground for sowing the seeds of the Gospel of Christ.
 
The priest and his two assistants spent much of their time each day trying to get to know the villagers.  The men of the Parisii were often away, hunting for deer and boar in the forests.  The women had small vegetable gardens which supplemented any meat the men might bring home.  Wheat and barley were grown to make beer with a little of the harvest used for making a coarse bread.  It was a community perpetually on the edge of starvation.  Working so hard just to stay alive, the Parisii had little time or interest in listening to the priests talk to them about Jesus.  They had their own gods of earth and sky and their own holy men to lead them.  So Bishop Denis and his companions, Fr. Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius set about using charity as their example of Christian faith.  But both the Roman soldiers and the villagers remained suspicious and hostile to the newcomers.
 
For nine years, St. Denis and his companions endured many hardships on their mission of bringing Christ and His Church to Paris.  They were often imprisoned by the Romans under the Emperor Decius since Christianity was illegal and seen as a threat to the Empire.  They were also beaten and imprisoned by the local pagan priests as well, who were angered by the converts St. Denis made among the village people.  As the number in his flock grew, St. Denis and his helpers became the victims of more severe beatings and longer imprisonments.  They were scourged, racked, thrown to wolves and starved.  Finally, in or around the year 275 A.D. the local Roman governor Sissinius ordered the three men to be killed.  They were taken outside the city to Mars Hill, now called Montmartre, and were beheaded.  The story of St. Denis, Bishop and Martyr, should have ended there.  But it didn’t.
 
As the soldiers and witnesses watched, the headless body of St. Denis stood up.  He reached down, picked up his head, and carrying it under one arm, began walking.  Renowned for his powerful preaching, St. Denis continued his sermon as he walked, stopping at a fountain to rinse the dust off of his disconnected head.  After walking and preaching for about two miles, he stopped at a widow’s house and collapsed, finally dead.  He received his burial at the widow’s hands and later, a church was erected on the spot to house his holy relics.  The Cathedral St. Denis is a beautiful example of early Gothic architecture and is a favorite pilgrimage site for those visiting Paris.  It is the traditional burial place of French royalty.  St. Denis’ faith took him from his Italian home to a hostile pagan land.  He lived a life of charity and sacrifice as an example to the unbelievers around him.  He brought souls to Christ and for that, he met a martyr’s death.  Like all the Saints who have gone before us, we can look to his holy life as a model of courageous faith in the midst of a violent and hurting world.  St. Denis, pray for us.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”                                                                –Matthew 28:19               

 

 

Souls on Board

I love airplanes. I’m old enough to remember when flying was fun and a bit of a luxury.  You dressed up in your best clothes and were treated to real food and drinks.  You were pampered and looked after.  There were usually plenty of empty seats in the cabin and you could enjoy your flight in peace and quiet.  Nowadays?  Well, you know what flying is like today.  But there’s still something almost miraculous about seeing a jumbo jet rumble down the runway gaining speed.  At the last moment, the nose lifts up and floats skyward, leaving the earth behind.  Driving near the airport this morning I saw a jet gaining altitude and flashing white and silver in the sun.  And I thought about who might be on board..
 
A businessman, of course.  Flying to a meeting with a potential customer.  He likes his job but hates the time he misses at home with his wife and children.  They’re growing up fast and he’s not there for enough ballgames and birthdays.  His wife resents the time he spends on the road.  He wishes it didn’t have to be this way.  But he had to travel to make enough money to keep the family going.  He looks at his watch and feels the pressure of his career and his family weighing inside him.  Please God, he prays, help me close this deal.
 
There’s a woman in her twenties with a six-month-old baby in her lap.  She’s nervous and worried.  This is her first flight.  But she’s even more worried about her baby.  She hasn’t been gaining weight and she cries a lot.  Her doctor is sending her to see a specialist.  What’s wrong with her little girl?  She pulls the baby close and kisses the top of her head, closing her eyes to the tears she feels stinging inside.  Please God, she prays, please make her be all right.
 
The pain in the older woman’s back makes it uncomfortable to sit very long.  She’s anxiously looking at the seat belt sign, hoping it will go dark soon and she’ll be able to get up and walk around.  That helps the pain.  When she gets home, she’ll get back in her routine and will walk every morning on the beach with Gus.  Thinking of her big old Rottweiler makes her smile, despite the pain.  Her son had given Gus to her when he’d had to go away.  That’s where she’s been on this trip, seeing him.  He has so many problems and she feels mostly useless to help him.  But he likes her visits and so she goes.  God help my son, she prays.
 
In every seat, on every flight, in every plane each day, there’s a person made in the image and likeness of God.  Each one has a rich and complicated story.  Everyone struggles with problems and with pain.  Each one of us is so very much more than we appear to be on the outside.  The businessman who’d rather be at home.  The young mother struggling to find a cure for her sick child.  The retiree returning home from a visit to see her son in prison.  We live in a broken and hurting world.  Adam’s sin has left us all wounded.  We carry scars inside us.  Every soul is a tender mystery of love and need.  Every one of us is a broken heart in need of Christ’s redemption, mercy, and love.  So when you look up into the blue sky of spring and see the silver flash of a jet headed from somewhere to somewhere else—say a prayer for the souls onboard.  You don’t know who they are, but God knows each one of them, You don’t know what their problems or needs are, but God surely does.  Some of them are His good friends, while some of them don’t yet know Him.  In both cases, they are His beloved children.  Ask the Lord to keep them safe on their journey.  Beg Him mercy for their sins and healing for their sorrows and pains.  You might be the only person praying for someone on that plane and your prayer could make all the difference in their lives.  As Christians, we’re family and we’re called to care for one another.  When we pray for our brother or sister, we affirm our family ties and we show our love, as He has asked us to love (John 13:33-34).  When we pray, our love and our prayers are pleasing to God.
 
“O Spirit, Whom the Father sent
To spread abroad the firmament;
O Wind of heaven, by Thy might
Save all who dare the eagle’s flight.
And keep them by Thy watchful care
From every peril in the air.
        —“Eternal Father, Strong to Save”
                       1940 US Episcopal Church version

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