Don’t Get Too Close

You can hear him barking way before you can see him.  Loud, persistent and ferocious, he’s making his presence known.  He’s kept on a long heavy chain by his owner and around his neck is a thick sturdy collar.  As you get closer to the big dog you hope the chain and the collar are both strong enough to hold him back.  When you get within sight of him, his barking gets so loud it hurts your ears.  The hackles on his back stand up as he stares you down.  Your heart pounds.  He leaps up as you keep walking toward him and you wonder:  just how long is that chain?

Wait a minute.  Who would be stupid enough to keep walking towards a big barking dog like that?  Anybody with sense is gonna get as far away from those snapping jaws as possible.  Nothing good can happen from getting closer to that sort of danger.  One step too close and you could end up seriously wounded, or even dead.  Just like a chained dog is dangerous if you get to close to him, so is the killing power of sin in our lives.  Getting too close to sin is what Catholics call “the near occasion of sin.”  It means putting yourself in a situation or around certain people or things that can tempt us to sin.  There’s a beautiful Catholic prayer that we pray after we’ve confessed our sins called the “Act of Contrition.”  In it, we tell God how sorry we are for offending Him with our sins and we ask Him to forgive us and to give us the grace “to sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin.”  Getting too close to situations that tempt us is just as dangerous as getting too close to that big chained dog.  That’s why it’s so important to examine your life closely to identify your sins and what or who draws you close to sin.

To begin with, sin is willful.  That is, you can’t sin by accident or without meaning to.  You have to know that the action is sinful and you have to consciously choose to do it anyway.  So if sin is a choice, you can also choose NOT to sin. We know that we need the help of God’s grace to avoid sin.  Without grace, we’re weak and easily tempted.  We keep committing the same sins and can’t seem to break the pattern.  Grace is our only hope.  Christ is our only hope.  We received the gift of His grace at our baptism when we were drawn into the very life of God.  Baptismal grace brings us out of darkness and into Light.  Baptism makes us a child of God and opens the door of heaven for us.  God’s grace fills us again in every Eucharist.  In the sacrament of Confirmation, the Holy Spirit once more infuses us with God’s grace and love.  He gives us so many opportunities for the strength we need to avoid sin. 

What’s your near occasion of sin?  Are you as fearful of sin as you are of that dangerous dog?  You should be.  You should be even more afraid of sinning against God than of that big barking dog.  The dog can wound your body but sin wounds your immortal soul.  Sin can kill your soul if you allow yourself.  St. Pio of Pietrelcina, known better as Padre Pio (1887-1968) was a 20th century saint who described how dangerous this can be:  “The devil is like a rabid dog tied to a chain; beyond the length of the chain he cannot seize anyone.  And you — keep at a distance.  If you approach too near, you let yourself be caught.”  So the question is:  just how long is that chain?  Do you keep yourself far enough from the things and people and situations in your life that tempt you to sin?  Are you aware of whom and what you must avoid so that grace can help you to avoid sin?  Pray that God will reveal your sins to you.  This is one of His great gifts to us.  When we know sin for what it is, we can begin to overcome it with His help.  You will see your sins for the horrible and deadly things that they are. As Christians, we seek to do the will of Christ and we pray that His grace will help us to closely follow Him.  Stay close to Christ in prayer.  Open your heart to Him.  Stay close to Christ in His Church and in the sacraments Jesus made for us.  Begin each day by offering it to the Lord and every evening, examine the day and ask God to forgive you for the sins you’ve committed that day.  Soon God will help you to recognize those near occasions of sin in your life.  You’ll hear the barking dog from a long distance away and God’s grace will keep you far from his dangerous bite.

“Sin isn’t the worst thing in the world.  The worst thing is the denial of sin.”

——-Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

The Intimacy of Touch

The first time I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame, I nearly ran over Pete Rose. Driving too quickly around a corner, he suddenly appeared at my right front bumper. Slamming on my brakes, I grinned a little and waved at him. He smiled and waved, never missing a step as he continued across the street. Good Lord, I thought. I almost hit Pete Rose. And this wasn’t to be the highlight of that trip to Cooperstown.  

Like most museums, the Hall keeps the vast majority of its treasures behind glass. You can look at Ty Cobb’s famous spikes, or Babe Ruth’s uniform, but you can’t touch them. I understand, of course. As I made my way past all the cases and displays of baseball history, I contented myself with putting my face to the glass, adding my smudges to the scores before me who had come to worship “our game.” Bats, scorecards, baseballs, catcher’s masks, photographs and trophies were all there on display. To look at, but not to touch. Then I turned a corner and saw an old wooden bench off by itself. Above it was a small plaque. I read what was on it, sat down carefully onto the bench, and burst into tears.  

It was Connie Mack’s bench. If you don’t know him, Connie Mack played, managed, and was a Major League owner from 1886 until 1954. His teams won 5 World Series and he managed the most wins in Major League history. As a manager, he’s known for wearing a suit to games and sitting on a bench outside the dugout. He had sat on this very bench. It really wasn’t much to look at, but for a baseball lover like me, oh what it meant. I was touching something touched by a legend of the game. It was, for me, a very powerful moment.  

And it reminded me why I’m a Catholic. Bear with me now. When I was a Protestant, my faith was grounded in Scripture and preaching. It was a solid enough foundation, but I needed more. It seemed to me like the Jesus of the Gospels was being kept all clean and shiny behind glass. We learned about a Savior Who hung out with tax collectors and whores, Who enjoyed good wine and a laugh with His friends. He cured people with spit! But on Sunday mornings, I felt like Jesus was being kept at arm’s length—wonderful to look at, but don’t touch. Like the treasures in Cooperstown, if you’ll allow me to make that stretch. But as a Catholic, I experience Jesus in the most intimate union of all in Holy Communion. My senses are overwhelmed with the scent of incense, the feel of holy oils, the beauty of the stained glass, and glory of the statues of my Lord and His family and friends. My heart is raised to heaven with the ancient and beautiful music of the Mass. And my Lord becomes a part of me in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.  

I know it’s asking a lot of you to let me compare Connie Mack’s bench to the Catholic Church. But think of the woman in Matthew, chapter 9 who had been sick for 12 years. She had great faith in Jesus to heal her. She could have just asked Him for healing, but she wanted to touch the hem of His garment. She had faith that that simple touching would heal her. And it did. Because Jesus willed her to be healed in that way. He created us as sensual beings, not as pure spirits. He became a man, like one of us, even though He could have saved us in any way that He willed. Just as he could have brought me to Himself in any way that He willed. He gave us His Church. He gave us the Sacraments,. It was through the Catholic Church that Jesus called me to follow him and His Church continues to nourish and sustain me in all my senses, my intellect, and my will. I live my life in great gratitude for that calling. (P.S. Connie Mack was Catholic, too).  

“For she thought: If I just touch His garments, I will be healed.”

—-Matthew 9:21

Yes. I Pray for the Dead

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.  It seems almost everyone I know has lost a beloved friend or family member in the last few months.  So many others are battling cancer or some other serious illness.  The specter of death lingers in our shared emails and in our phone conversations.  We keep each other updated and share our fears and our hopes.  And we pray.  We pray for healing and comfort.  We pray that the doctors will be guided by the Great Physician and make our friends whole and healthy again.  Mostly, we pray for God’s will to be done, for we know that this is the prayer that never fails.  And when a loved one dies, our prayers for them continue on.  As a Catholic, I believe in praying for the dead because I believe in purgatory.

Souls in hell can’t benefit from our prayers and the souls in heaven can’t draw any closer to Him.  But those Christians who have died and still have an attachment to sin must be purified before entering into His presence.  The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen described it this way.  Imagine that you have hammered a nail into a piece of wood.  The nail is your sin and the wood is your soul.  Once you repent of this sin, God removes the nail but the hole remains.  Your penance and prayers, through the mercy and redemption of Christ, fill in this hole with His grace.  So, if you die with some holes still there, you need to “get things right” before embracing Him fully.  If prayers can benefit our loved ones in this life, it seems reasonable that our prayers would benefit those being prepared for heaven in purgatory.  Praying for the dead is a very ancient practice which is part of the Jewish faith.  Even today Jews pray the “kaddish” prayers offered for the purification of deceased persons.  Jesus never taught us to stop this holy practice, though He certainly taught us to stop other Jewish rituals which He knew were vain or useless.  The purification that happens in purgatory is purely a work of God’s grace and we see it as a part of the ongoing sanctifiction of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.  We read the truth of this in the New Testament in several passages:  Hebrews 12:1; Revelation 21:27; I Corinthians 3:13-15; I Thessalonians 5:23; and Hebrews 12:1-2.  The early Church encouraged the faithful to pray for the souls of the departed.  We see this in the writings of Abercius, Perpetua, Cyril of Jerusalem; Epiphanius of Salamis, John Chrysostom and Augustine.  Since all these were writing between AD 160 and AD 421, prayers for the souls in purgatory were a holy practice from the earliest years of Christianity.

Praying for the dead is a way of affirming that their life goes on, that death isn’t the end but a journey into eternal life.  Praying for the dead witnesses our communion and solidarity as members of the Body of Christ.  We continue to gently hold onto one another even after death through our faith and by our prayers.  Praying for the dead is both a human and Christian way of saying:  we have not forgotten you, we will never forget you.  Our prayers remind us that we are all made one family through Christ.  Back before I joined the Catholic Church, it seemed odd and rather sad to me that my fervent prayers for my loved one were supposed to cease at the moment they took their last breath.  Did my love for them stop at the moment of their death?  Of course not.  And as Christians, we know that life is eternal.  Love has conquered death and praying for those we love after they die is one of the great gifts of the Christian life.  One of the most beautiful of all Catholic prayers is one we pray at a funeral Mass which, by the way, is called “The Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection.”  We pray for the deceased person:  “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May they rest in peace. Amen.”  What beautiful words of love to lay at the Lord’s feet as an offering on behalf of anyone we’ve loved and who has passed on to eternal life.

“Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood Of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the Universal Church, those in my own home and within my own family. Amen.”

–the prayer of St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1301)

Pope St. John XXIII

The Sunday following Easter is celebrated in the Catholic Church as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” In the spirit of the Easter season, this is a day when we give special thanks to the Lord for His great mercy and we pray that every person on earth knows that God loves them and forgives them of their sins. This devotion to Jesus’ mercy was something that St. John Paul II had promoted during his papacy. Another pope, St. John XXIII is known for his teaching on the mercy of God.

He was born Angelo Roncali in 1881 in Sotte il Monte, a village of 1200 at the foot of the Italian Alps. His family had lived there since 1429. The future pope was one of 14 children and his family farmed for a living. Their cows shared the ground floor of their home with them. He grew up happy and loved and in 1904, was ordained to the priesthood. He rose to the College of Cardinals in 1953 and was elected Pope in 1958 at the age of 76. Most officials within the Church expected him to be a kind of “caretaker” Pope from whom little innovation or real leadership would be expected. Good Pope John surprised everyone by calling for a worldwide Church council—the Second Vatican Council—which would transform Roman Catholicism. Though his papacy lasted just 5 years, his influence on our faith has been remarkable and lasting. Yet aside from his calling for Vatican II, he’s best remembered for his sense of humor. In his honor, here are a few of his most well-known quotes:

—When a reporter asked Pope John, “How many people work in the Vatican,?” he replied,”Oh, about half.”

—On another occasion,a Vatican official told him that it would be “absolutely impossible” to open the Second Vatican Council by 1963. “Fine, we’ll open it in 1962,” the Pope answered. And they did.

—The Pope was often the butt of his own jokes. He often laughed about his appearance—big ears, large nose, and round figure. One day after a session with a photographer, he said, “From all eternity God knew that I was going to be Pope. He had 80 years to work on me. Why did He make me so ugly?”

—He joked about his humble origins, too. “Italians come to ruin most generally in three ways: women, gambling, and farming. My father chose the most boring one.”

—Becoming Pope might have surprised him a bit. “It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and I decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope.” And another one: “Anybody can be Pope: the proof of this is that I have become one!”

—Lastly, he was once at a dinner party where a woman was seated across from him wearing a very low-cut dress. His papal secretary turned to him and whispered, “What a scandal! That woman—everyone’s looking at her!” “No one’s looking at her,” said Pope John. “Everyone’s looking at ME to see if I’M looking at her!”

Both popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, lived lives of humility and service and millions of the faithful join together in giving thanks to God for both of them. And both men are proof that being saints means sharing the joy (and laughter) of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

“I live by the mercy of Jesus, to Whom I owe everything and from Whom I expect everything.”
—Pope John XXIII