In The Valley Of Tears

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Like many middle-aged folks, I have a chronic illness. The medications I take to treat it have some really delightful side effects. Between the disease, the doctors and the medicines, some days are a struggle for me. Lots of you reading this know just how I feel. We all suffer. Some of us have physical illnesses, other folks battle emotional wounds, or addiction or any of a hundred other issues. In this world we live in, broken by the sin of our first parents, we struggle and work, we suffer and stumble through this “valley of tears” (Psalm 84).

One of the great joys of the Christian life is that, in Christ, our suffering has meaning. It’s not just worthless pain. On the Cross, Jesus turned the world’s truth upside down and transformed suffering into the ultimate power. In His Passion, we see The Lord humiliated, tortured, abandoned and killed. And yet His death is our great hope, opening the gates of heaven. His love overcomes the grave, once and for all. Jesus made suffering into the source of life and therefore He imbues suffering with value and purpose and meaning. And yet in the middle of our sufferings or illnesses or struggles, the search for purpose and meaning sometimes seems fruitless. How can we watch a loved one suffer and die and say that there is meaning and purpose in their pain? How can the agony of terminal cancer ever be redemptive?

The only way we can do this is by entering into Christ’s Passion. From the earliest years of the Church, the saints have proclaimed this truth. The suffering Creator giving His life for His children is the only way to make sense of our own pain, and the only way that our pain can redeem. “Rejoice that you are partakers in the sufferings of Christ”(St. Clement of Alexandria, 150-215AD). “…as God suffered for our sakes, so should we suffer…”(St. John Chrysostom, 347-407AD). Without redemptive suffering, by which we are united to Jesus’ suffering, all our pains and struggles make no sense. This kind of suffering is self-centered and pointless. Uniting our pain with Christ and His Cross is the only way out of self-pitying agony. The Cross is always our only hope.

We know that God could have saved us from sin in any way that He willed. He could have just waved a hand and it would have been done. Yet the way that He chose was the Crucifixion of His only Son on a Cross. In this way, our Lord revealed something very important: suffering and death have meaning. They are connected to our salvation. And if they have meaning for God, they have meaning for you and me, too. Pain and illness are not just random and horrible effects of original sin. Not since the Cross of Christ. That ultimate act of selfless suffering and death not only conquered the grave for our eternal souls, but it transformed suffering and pain for our physical bodies. Through Jesus, through His suffering, we can understand and value our own pain. The most important lesson that our pain can impart to us is the lesson of humility. Suffering is never an end in itself or a goal in itself. Suffering points the way to the Cross and to the total self-giving love that kept Christ nailed there. When we suffer in union with Him, in humility, when we offer our weaknesses to Him, in thanksgiving, we say, “Lord, I’m not doing this very well. I’m impatient and self-centered. But please use this pain in whatever way You will to increase my faith and trust in You.” Our broken hearts and broken bodies are a way to holiness, if we offer them up to our Savior. When I accept that I can’t fix my own pain, I can let The Lord heal my self-importance.

Understanding suffering from the foot of the Cross is the only way I can get through the bad days of my illness and treatments. Hurting makes me call on my Savior. It takes me out of my own self-centeredness and allows me to give it all, again, to Him It reminds me that, although He didn’t have to suffer and die, He did. For me and for you. My small sufferings are the tiniest echo of that great act of love and sacrifice. And for this, for Him, I give thanks to God.

“He gave our pain and struggles a holy significance, a redemptive power, which makes it a privilege to suffer with Christ.”
—-Dr. Scott Hahn

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Another Country, Not My Own

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Because he would not permit same-sex marriages in his diocese, the Bishop was put into prison. The court appointed a secular committee to oversee the running of the diocese in his absence. They closed many parishes and schools and rewrote the Liturgy to “make it more inclusive and progressive.” When the Bishop later died in prison, his successor rallied his flock to return the diocese to Church guidance. This was met with protests and street demonstrations led by violent anti-Catholic groups. Three weeks into his leadership, the new Bishop was beaten to death as he tried to talk with a group of protestors outside a church. His death was the first of many, until churches and cathedrals only existed in the dreams and memories of a handful of the faithful. They met together in secret and taught the Gospel and the Catechism to their children. In three lifetimes, the Church once again emerged from the shadows and helped their country begin to find its way. It was a time when many saints were made by God to save the faith.

This hasn’t happened in America. Yet. But it may not be too far into our future. I based this little vision on something Francis Cardinal George of Chicago said in 2010. In an interview, he said: “I expect to die in my bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.” The Cardinal may not have been speaking as a prophet, but it’s prudent that we pay heed to his words and consider what they might mean for our Church and our country.

Francis Cardinal George has seen the Catholic Church in America for the last seven decades. Born in 1937, he contracted polio at age 13. He was ordained in 1963 and has served the Church as priest, Bishop, and Cardinal since then. In 2006 he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer for which he received treatment. His resignation from Church office was accepted last year. Since then Cardinal George has lived quietly at his residence while receiving medical care. In the span of his one lifetime, the Cardinal has witnessed the Catholic Church in America go from being a highly-respected provider of education, health services and spiritual guidance with an abundance of priests serving growing parishes to…something else. Parish numbers and active priests have decreased, especially in northern states. The sex-abuse crisis has damaged the trust of many people. The secular press seems to make every effort to attack the Church. We see restrictions and impositions from the government regarding the free practice of our faith under the Affordable Health Care Act. Colleges and universities regularly restrict the activities of Christians on their campuses. Slowly but inexorably it’s becoming harder and harder to live our faith in the public arena. When you think about it, Cardinal George may be a prophet after all.

Today’s news comes from San Francisco, where many are up in arms about the Archbishop. His Excellency Salvatore Cordileone wants teachers in his Catholic schools to adhere to Catholic teaching. This means teaching what the Church has taught for centuries. Marriage is ordained by God as between one man and one woman. Abortion is a grave sin. Human life is sacred. Protestors want him removed due to his “outdated” beliefs. This Archbishop is standing his ground, but legal challenges are yet to be decided. Once again, the courts may intrude on the free practice of religion in America.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Catholic Church in our country and elsewhere is under attack. But then the Church has always been under attack. The Roman Empire put Christians to death—and the Roman Empire fell. Catholics have been imprisoned and martyred for their faith for centuries. And yet the Church remains. We remain because of what Jesus promised to the Church He founded on St. Peter: “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”(Matthew 16:18). Christ is with us. Christ goes before us. The Church is His spotless and holy Bride. But the times we live in demand us to be watchful, faithful and prayerful. And kind. Many who attack the faith have never felt the charity of the faithful. We also have to vote in support of those who will respect freedom of religion. Know your faith. Love your faith. And put on the armor of God.

“Therefore put on the full armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…”
—Philippians 6:13

Our Treasure

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Recently I attended the funeral of an old friend at a parish in an adjacent state. Another friend, a non-Catholic, went with me. On the drive to the funeral Mass, I talked with her about Communion and let her know that only Catholics may receive the Holy Eucharist at Mass. She didn’t ask me any questions, but only nodded. During Mass, she stood and kneeled with the rest of us. The priest informed the mourners that only Catholics could receive the Eucharist, but that all were welcome to come forward to receive a blessing. My friend chose to stay in our pew when I walked up for Holy Communion. On the trip home, she was quiet and thoughtful. She talked a little about how different Mass was from the services at her church. Finally, as she was getting out of my car, she turned back and said, “You have a treasure in that Catholic Eucharist.”

Yes, we do. A Treasure, indeed. And yet some Catholics don’t embrace or adore our Savior present in the Holy Eucharist. We see it in the life of our parishes, when we fail to teach our children of the beauty and holiness of the Blessed Sacrament. When we enter the presence of God without reverence, or when we talk and laugh in our pews before Mass begins, we fail to honor Him. If we receive communion in a state of sin, we not only dishonor Jesus, we compound our sinfulness. The line for Communion is long, but all too often the line for Confession is very short. We hear of even worse disrespect by some careless or thoughtless priests who fail in their vocation to reveal the truth of the Holy Eucharist to their flocks. Many of us in the pews can become tepid in our faith, too. We can forget that we are at Calvary whenever we go to Mass. It can slip our minds that when we kneel before the Eucharist, we are kneeling before the Lamb of God, Emmanuel, the Creator, the Alpha and Omega—the Savior of the world. Sometimes it takes the words of an outsider to remind us of our Treasure.

There was a 2010 Pew Research Survey which revealed that only about 45% of Catholics in America believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. More than half of us don’t realize Who we receive in Holy Communion. St. Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 107AD) wrote that “without the Eucharist there is no Church.” If there is a wound at the heart of Catholicism it is this unbelief in the Holy Eucharist. It reveals itself in the number of Catholics who don’t come to Mass, in the parishes and schools that are being closed and in a hundred other heartbreaking ways. But the most damaging and painful wound is how much our unbelief must hurt our Lord. This Treasure of Himself that He gave to his Church sometimes isn’t being treasured. You see, the truth of Who the Eucharist really is doesn’t depend on our belief. Whether or not we believe that Jesus is really and truly present in the Holy Eucharist—He is. We know this is true because He told us so Himself. St. Paul taught us this. From St. Peter to Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has always affirmed this belief. Our Catechism puts it simply: “The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Christian life”(para. 1324). Source and Summit. Where we come from and to Whom we aspire. Alpha and Omega.

I heard a priest once say that if the Church was handing out hundred dollar bills at every Mass, the line to come in would be miles long out the door. And yet at every Mass, we are given a Treasure beyond all the money and gold in the world—and yet people don’t come, or if they do come, many may not know Who is waiting for them. Some choose other churches because “Mass is boring.” As if an intimate encounter with Jesus Christ could be boring. My friend realized that truth at the funeral Mass we attended together. She realized Who the Eucharist is. As Catholics, we need to pray that The Lord awakens this believe in all of us and opens our eyes and our hearts to this Treasure of our faith. He is our Source and our Summit.

“A Christian life whose weekly high point is essentially a concert followed by a lecture (even a very good lecture) is not going to have the kind of otherworldly power as one where you get to eat and drink God. It just can’t hold a candle.”
—Fr. Andrew Damick

The Soldier’s Faith

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In my parish church we have beautiful plaques depicting the Stations of the Cross. These stations tell the visual story of Christ’s last hours. Traditionally, the 14 stations start with his arrest in Gethsemane and end when His Body is placed in the tomb. In our stations, there is the figure of a Roman soldier who follows Christ’s journey along the way. And, at the crucifixion, the artist gives the soldier a halo as he gazes on the suffering Christ. It’s at that moment when the soldier is transformed from a pagan employee of the Empire into a new believer in Jesus Christ. In Catholic tradition, the soldier’s name is Longinus and he is the centurion who thrust his lance into Christ’s side after His death. It was St. Longinus who then proclaimed, “In truth, this man was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).

Often when I’m sitting in “my” pew at church, my eyes follow this centurion as he helps guard Christ through His trial and condemnation, and then as He carries His cross to the hill at Golgotha. Each station shows this soldier carefully observing Christ. His eyes never leave Him. Jesus is tortured and beaten. He falls down again and again under the weight of the cross. Jesus is dirty, bleeding and exhausted. The centurion looks regal and important in his spotless Imperial uniform. The two men couldn’t look more different. And yet the centurion is transfixed by this beaten man. He walks with Jesus, seeing Him struggle to bear the weight of the cross in His weakened state. Jesus meets His mother and Longinus watches. Our Lord’s face is wiped of sweat and blood by St. Veronica, and Longinus watches. He sees Jesus stripped of His garments and stands looking when He is nailed to the cross. Surely Longinus must know why this Nazarene is being put to death by Rome. He’s heard the stories. He knows a bit about the Jews and their laws about blasphemy. And he’s witnessed dozens of other crucifixions. Oh yes. His superiors make good use of the cross. And yet, there’s something different about this one. This Jesus. Longinus can’t take His eyes from Him. It’s as though the Person of Jesus Christ is revealed to Longinus in His faithful suffering and tender self-sacrifice.

I pray to be more like St. Longinus. I don’t always keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. I stumble and I fall. I let myself be distracted by the things of the world. Unlike my savior, I care about what others think of me. I want to be admired and respected. I’m prideful and full of conceit. I try to do everything myself. When St. Longinus witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross, his heart was filled with faith and he allowed the Holy Spirit to open his eyes. “In truth this man was the Son of God.” Am I willing to be such a fearless proclaimer of Christ crucified?

During Lent, we journey with Chris as He moves through His Passion and death towards the resurrection of Easter morning. Like St. Longinus, we’re called to participate in Jesus’ suffering. We meditate on the Stations of the Cross. We imagine ourselves being there, seeing Jesus, seeing His pain and suffering. And knowing that He’s doing all of this for me and for you. Every drop of His Precious Blood is given out of love, to save us. His very life, poured out in love.

St. Longinus allowed God to enter His heart and reveal the truth of Jesus to him. Tradition tells us that Longinus left military service, became a monk, and was ultimately killed for his faith in Christ. I pray that God will fill my heart with that depth of love for His Son. I pray that my eyes too will always be fixed on Christ. And that, like St. Longinus, I will always fearlessly proclaim Christ crucified and give my life over to Him, every day, every hour, every moment. May all of us experience the sweet love of our Lord on our journey through Lent. Amen.

“I do not pray for success; I ask for faithfulness.”
—-Blessed Mother Teresa

Called To Kindness

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She’s out there almost every day of the year. Now in her mid-eighties, sometimes the weather keeps her inside, but even that is rare. When the tide goes out on the beach near her home, she goes walking. You’ll see her with her head bent searching the rocks, bundled against the constant wind, carefully stepping down along the way in her rubber boots. She’s looking for starfish. In this part of Ireland, the tides are quick and extreme, by our standards. And when the waters pull back out to sea, they strand starfish on the rocks. Unable to swim, they’re stuck there until the next tide comes in, many hours later. If the sun is out, they can dry up and die. My sweet old friend can’t bear that, so she patrols her stretch of beach and when she finds a stranded starfish, she picks it up and drops it in the basket she carries. She says when she was younger she’d throw each one back into the water as soon as she’d find it, but that doing that now is hard on her shoulder. She waits til she’s done and then empties her basket into the sea when she’s finished with her walk. You see, she’s been doing this for more than sixty years. How many starfish do you think you’ve returned to the water in all those years, I ask her. Oh, a lot, I imagine, she says. I do a little math and calculate that her efforts have easily helped more than a hundred thousand starfish over the decades.

My friend doesn’t know the Loren Eisley story about the man who saves starfish, like she does. In the story when he’s confronted about the futility of his mission, it doesn’t faze him. “You can’t save them all. What you’re doing doesn’t make a difference.” The old man picks up another starfish and throws it back into the water. “It makes a difference to this one,” he replies.

You could certainly argue that the limited efforts of one old lady on a tiny stretch of beach aren’t going to effect starfish populations worldwide. True. I even wonder how many of those starfish get picked up and “saved” again after the next low tide. But that misses the point, I think, just as the often-told Eisley story misses the point. For me, it’s not about the starfish, but it’s about how acts of kindness change our own hearts. And the world.

I believe that kindness is its own reward. You never know the effects of an act of kindness, nor is that even a consideration for us. As Christians, we’re called to charity and sacrifice. That’s how we follow Jesus. We give because He gives. We love because He loves. We bend over and pick up the fallen and the stranded because that’s what He does for us. We don’t stop to consider the cost of our kindness or even the “good” that it accomplishes. We just do it. We reflect Christ’s charity, which is freely given to everyone, whether they treasure it or not. The act of loving and caring for others is transformational in and of itself. Kindness exercises the muscles of our hearts just as a workout at the gym conditions our physical bodies.

Over the decades, my friend has enjoyed her walks on the beach every day and she’s doubtless helped thousands of starfish in the process. But what she’s really done is to live a life caring for the least of God’s creations. Everyone who sees her is reminded that we can all make a difference in the world, and that no act of charity is every lost. God sees even our smallest kindnesses: a smile, a hug, a word of encouragement. Or one little starfish given another chance to live another day.

“The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness.”
—-Victor Hugo