Missing Sunday Mass?

On any given Sunday about 25% of Catholics in America attend Mass (Georgetown University CARA Study, 2012).  That means the great majority of us AREN’T in the pews.  Some legitimate reasons we might miss Mass include having to work, being sick or caring for someone who is ill or infirm, caring for an infant, and severe weather that makes travel dangerous.  There can be other valid reasons for missing Sunday Mass, too. But it’s hard to imagine that 75% of us are missing Mass for one valid reason or another.  The Church teaches that we must attend Mass on Sunday and some holy days–for our own good.  Coming together to worship God and celebrate the Eucharist dates back to the first years of the Church.
Worshipping together was a crime punishable by death from about 64 AD (under Nero) until 312 AD (under Constantine).  Even being accused of being a Christian could lead to execution.  But it really wasn’t individual Christians that the Roman Empire saw as a threat to the state  It was their assembly together at Mass that the government saw as an act of treason.  This same assembly is viewed by the Church as the way we fulfill our membership in the Body of Christ.  For both Church and Empire, the way you know someone was a Christian is if they shared regularly in worship.  How many Catholics today could meet this definition of being Christian?
Of course, just going to Mass doesn’t guarantee a deep and rich relationship with God and our neighbor.  Like the old saying, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.  But the Church in her wisdom knows that NOT coming to Mass on Sunday is a sure way NOT to be a Christian.  Worshipping together is central to our Christian lives.  “It is the liturgy which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist ‘the work of our redemption is accomplished'” (Constitution on the Liturgy). During the Roman persecutions, the government focused on killing the clergy and confiscating property and homes used for worship.  The Empire thought that by depriving the Church of a means to come together in corporate worship they could stamp out Christianity.  Yet the Roman Christians regularly risked their lives to come together for the celebration and sacrifice of the mass.  They believed with all their hearts that in the Mass they encountered the very Person of Jesus Christ in the ultimate expression of His redeeming love.  This is why the Church obligates us to come to Mass—not because the Church loves making rules, but because the Church knows that our salvation is through the saving work of Christ and in His command that we receive His Body and His Blood in the Holy Eucharist.  “Do this in memory of me”(Luke 22:19). 
When we miss Mass on Sunday for no good reason, it’s as if we are turning away from Christ’s sacrifice of love on the Cross.  Mass is the public prayer of the Church where we gather as members of His Body to ask forgiveness of our sins, to thank Him for His love for us, to learn how to be close to Him and to share in the Eucharist, which is Christ Himself.  The Eucharist is how we allow the Holy Spirit to “work out our salvation”(Philippians 2:13) in us.  That process within us continues throughout our lives and so at least every Sunday we need to participate in this eternal journey.  Saying “no” to Sunday Mass without a good reason is saying “no” to the process of redemption that Christ died to give us.  We turn away from the sanctifying grace we need for eternal life.  If you’ve been away from Mass, come back.  Let God know you’re sorry for being away from Him.  Most parishes offer the Sacrament of Confession each Saturday, or you can call your local parish office for a private appointment with a priest.  God loves you and wants you to come back and worship with His family, with YOUR family (Romans 8:35).  We’re blessed to live in a country where we can still freely worship Christ without fear.  He is waiting for you.
“…All who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice and to eat the Lord’s Supper.”
                                                        —Constitution on the Liturgy

Thanksgiving Means Forgiveness

Thanksgiving is my favorite secular holiday.  It doesn’t involve much overdone commercialism and it’s free from all the consumer-driven anxiety of Christmas.  Thanksgiving is a day to remember and be thankful to God for all the graces and blessings in our lives.  We gather together with family and friends and share a meal.  Many of us may go to Church as well.  We’ll come together before the altar of God and offer our thanks to Him for the precious gift of our salvation:  His Son, Jesus Christ.  And we’ll ask God to forgive us for our sins.  We do this at the beginning of every Mass because there is such a strong connection between forgiveness and thanksgiving.  We can’t approach the thankfulness of Holy Communion until we’ve approached the Lord for mercy and forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession.  This is God’s plan for us.  And so, during this Thanksgiving week as we prepare the pies and the turkey to share with the people we love, let’s also prepare our hearts by forgiving those in our lives who have wronged us. 
Forgiveness is at the heart of our salvation.  Through Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to the Father.  Nothing we have ever done is so heinous that God’s mercy is denied us.  What a wonderful thing to know!  This alone is more than enough to fill our “things I am thankful for” list a thousand times over.  Our salvation journey starts when we acknowledge our sinfulness before God and beg His forgiveness.  But we grow in our faith when we extend that forgiveness to the people in our lives.  This is so important that Jesus included it in the perfect prayer He shared with His friends:  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”(Luke 11:4).  As we receive God’s mercy we’re called to extend it to other people.  We must be conduits of forgiveness.  But we also know how difficult it can be to forgive someone, don’t we?  Everyone reading this has been hurt by someone and found forgiving them hard, or even impossible to do.  We’ve held onto the pain they caused us and maybe we’ve let it simmer like a poison inside us for months, or even years.  In fact, the root meaning of the word “grudge” is “to murmur”—isn’t that what unforgiven hurts do in our hearts?  They murmur and echo in the small dark closet in our soul where we harbor our secret pains.  And it saps the joy out of what God means for us to have.  We need to forgive to fully live our redeemed lives.
So, suck it up and forgive somebody.  Especially this week.  How can we gather in thankfulness if we have those murmuring hurts and angers?  Christ says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins”(Mark 11:26).  That’s how important it is for us to let go–we have to forgive so that God can forgive us.  In fact, God has only one solution to the problem of our sin and that is forgiveness.  “To forgive” means “to be gracious.”  We are called to give grace to one another as God has given His grace to us.  But what if that other person has been so mean, so hurtful, so awful that you just don’t believe they deserve to be forgiven?  Newsflash:  none us should hope to get what we really deserve.  Mercy is NOT getting what you and I deserve for our sins (i.e. punishment) and grace is getting what we DON”T deserve (i.e. mercy).  As Christians we live in the sweet grace of knowing that we NEVER get what we deserve, thanks be to God!  None of us deserves forgiveness so it’s mercy when we extend that to someone who has hurt us.  Forgiveness isn’t about fairness, it’s about grace.  And here’s something else to consider:  forgiveness isn’t a feeling, it’s a decision.  If you wait until you feel like doing it, you never will.  God doesn’t tell us to forgive them if we feel like it.  We read in Hebrews how God forgives:  “Their sins and their lawless acts I will remember no more”(10:17).  God chooses not to remember our sins.  We should imitate Him.  We make the choice to forgive and then we pray for God to help us live out that decision. 
As you gather to share Thanksgiving, remember to give thanks for God’s great love and mercy in your life.  In the end, what we have in this life is each other.  The Lord has forgiven your sins and offered you eternal life in Jesus Christ.  At the center of that love and grace is the Cross.  This Thanksgiving, lay the burden of your un-forgiveness at the foot of that Cross.  And be thankful.
“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins according to the riches of His grace.”
                                                                                —Ephesians 1:7

“My fellow barbarians…….”

So the elections are over and a few of my friends are beginning to stockpile things like food and water, supplies of seeds and the makings of a small arsenal.  They believe there’s a coming financial/social/political collapse which will radically change the way we’ll be living in America.  You’ve probably seen that TV show about folks who are doing the same kind of “prepping” for everything from earth-changing solar flares, to super volcanoes to a deadly flu pandemic to hyperinflation.  All kinds of mostly-rational people are squirreling away mountains of supplies which they hope will be enough to see them through whatever the coming apocalypse holds in store.  I don’t know.  Maybe they’re right.  Maybe it’s the prudent thing to do—to prepare for the worst.  But I just can’t do it.  Call me lazy or naive but I simply refuse to embrace the need to learn how to make freeze-dried possum or operate a chemical toilet.  If it all goes south, I’ll just tag along for the ride.  Mostly, thinking about terrible things that might someday happen makes me even more thankful that my hope is not in the things of this world.  Christians are called to be people of hope.  And by that I don’t mean that we walk around with cartoon bluebirds singing above our heads like dull-witted Pollyannas.  Christian hope has nothing to do with being optimistic.  Optimism is a temperament.  Christian hope is a theological virtue given to us in our baptism and strengthened through confirmation, confession and the Holy Eucharist.  It is a gift from God to His children.  Hope is the certainty that God loves us.  We can be certain of His love because He’s told us He loves us and, most profoundly, by the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Don’t get me wrong.  The Catholic Church in America is facing profound attacks on the practice of our faith by the current (and now, future) administration.  Simply put, we are suing the government to leave us along.  Some of our cardinals or bishops or priests may end up in jail rather than comply with what amounts to us as an unconstitutional health-care mandate.  So if anybody should have a kind of bunker mentality right, it should be Catholics. 
But we can’t give in to it.  Since the time of the Apostles, the Church has faced persecution, repression, and all manner of martyrdoms.  We can face any kind of disaster, disappointment or suffering if we hold fast to hope in Christ.  Read about some of the great martyrs of the Church and their perseverance and JOY while enduring physical torture of the most extreme kinds, imprisonment or starvation.  They prayed, they sang, they danced.  They praised God.  The saints kept their hearts fixed on Christ and they never lost hope.  That’s what saw them through the world’s pains to the glory of heaven.  And that’s what will see us through whatever economic (or other) disasters we might be facing.  We were made for the joy of the Lord and our true happiness is only found in Him.  People and man made institutions will always disappoint us.  God never disappoints. 
The challenge facing Catholics now is to remain engaged with a culture that has, in many ways, won the battle.  Issues like abortion, same-sex “marriage”, and religious freedom, the core of many social conservative agendas are claimed as “won” by our political administration.  With the President ability to appoint federal judges and Supreme Court justices, we could be in for a long siege.  And that’s how we need to think about it, too.  The barbarians at the gate….are us!  The city’s already fallen and it’s up to us to re-take it.  Barbarians like us are in it for the long haul.  We’re in it for eternity.  And we’re in it to win it because our hope is in the Lord.  But to claim our victory we have to cling to the Cross of Christ and remain faithful to the Church He founded (Matthew 16:18).  We have to pray and to fast (Matthew 17:21) if we are committed to this great work of faith.  We can’t just withdraw into a bunker and wait it out.  We have to engage with the people in our community, our family and our parish and be encouraged by Christ to know and defend our faith and our beliefs.  We can’t give in to despair or paranoia.  We have to fight the good fight of the faith (I Timothy 6:12) and as Churchill said, “never, never, never give up!”  The world hungers for the witness of Christ and for us to be the spiritual leaven of that world (Matthew 13:33).  We have to boldly proclaim Christ crucified (I Corinthians 1:23-24) and do so with joy!  Our lives must be a witness to the transformational love of Jesus.  Like Joshua at Jericho, we must be led by God’s holy presence if we trust to reclaim our city, our culture.  Joshua’s siege was led by the Ark of the Covenant.  We are led by the presence of God in the Holy Eucharist and Adoration.  He is our only Hope.  
“Lord, send out Your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!” —Psalm 104:30

Two Friends

Born into an Irish Catholic family in New York City, he never lived his family faith. Yet the idea of God and religion permeated his life and his works. For the haunting and extraordinary plays he wrote, he was awarded both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes. But his personal life was a shambles. He had three failed marriages and of his three children, two committed suicide. This incredibly gifted man, whose work had touched millions of people, now lay dying from the effects of alcoholism in a Boston hotel room. At his bedside was his lifelong friend, praying for him as she had done for decades. He was Eugene O’Neill and she was Dorothy Day.
She described her early life as bohemian and self-centered. She was an advocate of “free-love” and her two common-law marriages were among many of her affairs. Her autobiography chronicles night-long drinking episodes and friends who died of heroin overdoses. Dorothy was an agnostic who was much more interested in poetry and politics than in God. During World War I, these two friends traveled in the same radical circles in New York’s Greenwich Village. One evening, at a bar named “The Hellhole” Eugene recited a poem for Dorothy written by Francis Thompson and titled, “The Hound of Heaven” which begins with these lines: “I fled Him down the nights and down the days; I fled Him down the arches of the years. I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him.” In a way, it was the story of O’Neill’s own life, of his own private tortured race to stay one step ahead of God, the “hound” of heaven, indeed. Dorothy saw his torment and yet she was too embroiled in her own sufferings to be a beacon for Gene. A year earlier, she’d become pregnant and had had an abortion. She’d been abandoned by the baby’s father. Now, she was pregnant again.
For Eugene O’Neill, the race from God would continue until that night last night of his life with Dorothy by his side. But for Dorothy, life would be a different sort of journey. With the birth of her daughter, she was awakened to the great love of God and experienced a conversion to Him. She joined the Catholic Church and began working for and with the poorest of the poor. In the homeless alcoholics and prostitutes of New York City, Dorothy saw the face of Jesus Christ. She gave them food and housing and employment. She loved them. She fought against racism and social injustices. In 1955, she joined the Order of St. Benedict. When someone once protested that the people she helped were undeserving of her aid, she famously replied, “God help us if we got just what we deserved.”
Jesus loved Eugene O’Neill with the desperate, all-consuming zeal of the Savior who died for him on Calvary. Yet, Eugene seemed unaware of His love. Dorothy Day’s heart was transformed by the gift of her daughter and she lived the rest of her life being Christ to the poor. As her friend lay near death, Dorothy prayed that he too would turn at last to God. She recalled the story of the prodigal son and his return home to the father that had always loved and wanted him. Did her prayers bear fruit for her friend? We don’t know. In her own life, Dorothy’s “yes” to Christ allowed Him to live through her and her works. Eugene O’Neill died in Boston in 1953. Dorothy Day died in 1980. The Cause for her Sainthood was opened by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Two lives, two friends: once so simliar, both given the same gift of God’s love, both choosing different paths.
“Obsessed by a fairy tale, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace.” Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)

A Divided Nation

No matter the results of the presidential election, our nation is embarking on four years of change, economic upheaval and hard decisions about our values and our future.  Some of us will be happy with the election results and about the same number of us will be discouraged, disappointed, and even angry.  In many ways we are a divided people.  Abortion, same-sex marriage, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the role of government in our daily lives:  these and many other issues define our political views.  We argue with one another, perhaps in the hopes of persuading others to share our views, or maybe just to vent our frustrations with what seems to be a political and social system that is permanently mired in gridlock.  The problems facing our country can appear oppressive and intractable.  Yet, as is true with most things, there’s nothing new under the sun.  In the brief history of America, we’ve seen divisions like this before.  When the urge for independence from England first took root in the colonies, families and communities were divided.  In the War Between the States, we saw the deep and abiding fracture of North and South, of brother against brother.  Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement both polarized us as a country for decades.
Yet through all these struggles, we emerged as better for it.  Maybe because our conflicts and disagreements helped us to define who we are as Americans and cleared our clouded vision so we could imagine a more perfect union, a more united future.  Or maybe we just came to the point where the struggle wasn’t worth the price we paid in blood, in treasure, in the broken ties that once bound us as family and community.  Valley Forge.  Gettysburg.  Khe Sanh. Birmingham.  When we look at our nation’s present troubles as a process occurring “out there in the world” we can’t see how one person can make any difference or be any force of change to find a way through our divisions towards unity of purpose and real lasting peace.
What’s wrong with our world?  The English writer G.K. Chesterton was once asked this question for a newspaper article.  His remarkable answer:  “I am.”  The world “out there” is a perfect mirror of your heart and of my heart.  If there is division and conflict in the world, it’s because my own heart is divided and in conflict.  The world we live in is a reflection of the hearts that beat within us.  A culture divided by issues of life, family, freedom, and our future reveals our own internal struggles to come to terms with the meaning of our existence.  Why am I here?  What’s the purpose of my life?  What happens after I die?  Is THIS all there is?  We’re hungry for answers, real answers.  And one step into your local bookstore will show you how many different “answers” there are out there.  But most come down to a few disturbing guiding principles:  What’s in it for me?  How much can I get away with?  What’s the least I can do and still get by in my schooling, my marriage, my job, etc?  With these questions to guide us, it’s no wonder that our hearts and our nation, hunger for peace, truth and authentic happiness. 
This hunger itself is a gift from God.  By placing it within us, He invites us to seek Him out, since only God can satisfy our yearnings.  In Christ alone will we find our heart’s desire.  We were made to be reconciled to the Father through Jesus Christ.  Every soul created by God was made to live in relationship with Him.  When we surrender ourselves to the One Who loved us first, we find true peace.  Our divided hearts are made whole in the mercy and love of His Sacred Heart.  And this healing is one filled with abundant joy.  As Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life and have it to the fullest”(John 10:10).  Imagine a culture or a nation which truly embraced Christ! To do that, our own hearts must first come to Him.  Each of us must carry the light of Christ in our families, our jobs, our neighborhoods and our nation.  By following Christ, we become the people God created us to be.  Our great nation and our President need our prayers now and especially over the next four years to come.  There is a Light leading our path if we only choose to follow Him. God bless America.
“The desire for God is written in the human heart because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to Himself.  Only in God will man find the truth and happiness he never stops yearning for.”
                                                               —The Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Odor of……..Joy!

In a small Middle-Eastern country, in a small corner of a desert land, there grows a small tree.  Squat and thick, it’s really more of a dense shrub than a tree.  With thick, twisted branches that grow very slowly, it offers little shade from the heat and no edible fruit or nuts.  But the Boswellia tree of Oman has been treasured for thousands of years for its’ thick oily sap.  Harvesters slash the trunk of the tree with machetes and resin oozes out of the wounds.  In a day or two, the sap will harden into nuggets like rock candy.  These hard grains of dried resin are the raw materials of the incense used in Catholic churches around the world. 
Both the Old and the New Testaments tell us that using incense is pleasing to God.  In Exodus, God commands Moses to build a small golden altar specifically for burning incense every morning and evening (Exodus 30:1-8). “Most holy shall this incense be unto you”(Exodus 30:36).  Incense is also mentioned in the Psalms and by the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Malachi.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, we read that the aging priest Zacharias was about to offer incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the archangel Gabriel appeared to him to announce that he and his wife Elizabeth were about to have a son, the future John the Baptist (Luke 1:8-13).  One of the most memorable appearances of incense in Holy Scripture is as one of the gifts of the Magi to the child Jesus.  “And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary His mother, and falling down they adored Him; and opening their treasures they offered Him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh”(Matthew 2:11).  In the Revelation of St. John, he describes a scene in heaven where an angel burns incense:”…and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints…before God” (Revelation 8:3-4).
For the first several hundred years of Christian worship though, there is no evidence that incense was used.  Some believe that the fragrant clouds it made would have attracted the attention of the authorities of the Roman Empire at a time when Christians were killed for practicing their faith.  Others think it was more likely that the earliest Christians associated incense with another Roman practice of the time.  Roman judges would offer a captured Christian the chance to save his or her life by burning a few grains of incense before an image of a pagan god.  Christians who refused would be executed.  For whatever reason, it wasn’t until about the 4th century that Christians regularly used incense during the Holy Mass.
For Catholics, incense serves the same purpose as it did when Moses burned it in the desert — it pays homage to all that is holy and symbolizes our prayers ascending to God.  The incense we use, which has been mixed with spices to increase its’ fragrance, is placed over glowing charcoal embers in a covered gilded vessel called a censer or thurible.  The censer is suspended by chains which allows it to be swung forward to diffuse the sweet smoke.  Frequently, priests will incense the altar, the Gospels and the faithful themselves gathered to worship God.  As a symbol, incense reminds us of our prayers lifting up to God in heaven.  The sweet cloud of smoke recalls the appearances of God the Father as a cloud in Holy Scripture. The fragrant symbolism of incense engages our senses as it lifts our thoughts and minds to God.  It takes us out of our everyday-ness.  From a humble, wounded desert tree, incense comes to draw our hearts to that other tree in a desert land, which held our Lord and Savior, by Whose own wounds, we are healed.
“Perfume and incense make the heart glad.”    —-Proverbs 27:9