Dying a “Good Death”

“A good death.” You hear that said in Catholic families who are facing the loss of someone they love. Non-Catholics usually have no idea what this means. This is because a) most folks could never imagine death or any of its trappings to be “good” and b) many non-Catholics believe that their salvation is assured beyond any doubt. As usual, we Catholics have a rather different understanding of both death and our salvation.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven at our baptism. We are initiated by those waters into the new life of Christ and His Church. We know as well that we will sin after our baptism. Jesus knew this too, which is why He instituted the sacrament of confession. While with His disciples, “[Jesus] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained ‘ “(John 20:22-23). From the beginning, the Apostles began baptizing and healing and forgiving sins. Confession has been a function of our priests since the very earliest years of the Church. So confession is something God wants us to make use of whenever we commit serious sin. In it, we encounter His mercy and forgiveness. We remain in God’s grace when confession is used regularly. Through it we receive His sanctifying grace which helps us to resist sin.

We confess because Jesus told us to and because He empowered His Apostles and their successors to share His forgiveness with us. Like St. Paul teaches, we know that our salvation is a gift which, through sin, we can abuse and lose. “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall” (I Corinthians 10:12). Our faith must take root and work in our lives or it is a gift that is lost.

So what is a “good death?” For Catholics, we pray and hope to die in the grace of God, sharing His friendship. To that end, we should go to confession whenever we’ve committed serious sin and frequently receive Holy Communion. If we are ill with physical or emotional disease we should receive the Anointing of the Sick which will strengthen us in our journey. If you are undergoing surgery, you should request this anointing. What used to be called “the last rites” includes anointing as well as confession and Holy Communion. If someone in your family is Catholic and is seriously ill, it’s important that these Sacraments be made available to them. Like many Catholics, I wear a medal that requests a priest to be called in case of an emergency. As we say, if I’m in an accident, call a priest first and then call the doctor. My soul needs healing, too.

Dying in the grace of God is a wonderful comfort to the patient and to all those dear to them. We Catholics also believe that our prayers should continue after the death of our loved one. God alone knows the fate of each soul, so it’s an act of charity to pray for the dead. We are all part of the Body of Christ and praying for one another is what families do.

Each of us should consider the state of our soul. Catholics call this “an examination of conscience.” It’s a good habit to acquire because it keeps your heart tender towards your sins. At the end of every day, think back on your actions and thoughts and words. Consider how your sins affect your soul and your relationship with God. We are all going to come face-to-face with the Lord at the end of our lives. Surely we’ll want to meet Him in a state of grace. We want to meet Him with no regrets, having lived a life pleasing to God and poured out in service to one another. Part of running “the race” (II Timothy 4:7) that St. Paul writes about is keeping close to God and allowing His grace to transform us. We live in the joy of Christ, so that when we meet Him, He’ll welcome us into His arms.

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His Saints.”
—Psalm 116:15

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Jesus and Time

I think about time a lot these days. Maybe because I’ve lived through a lot of years. But also because the idea of time and how we’ve come to understand it has always fascinated me. When I was a kid, I’d search out our library for books about time-travel until the librarian got tired of me asking for new ones. Over the years, I’ve read as much as I can understand about how modern physics explains time and space. But, like many of us I guess, it’s easier to think of time in simple terms, like a river that flows on forever. We step into that river on the date of our birth and we cross out of it on the other side when we die. Our life flows along with the years as we ride down that river of time. We imagine that time had a beginning on that first day of creation in that time will have an ultimate end when Christ returns. 

God created time and He holds time in existence. But God Himself exists outside of time. Without a beginning or an end, God exists in all times, in a kind of perpetual “now.” Imagine a timeline from creation to the end of time laid on a huge, long table. God sees all of time in a single glance. Past, present, and future are all “now.” He sees all of eternity and He sees the entirety of your life, from your conception to your death. And yet, the God we serve isn’t a disinterested observer who watches us from the heavens. God loves us so much that He chose to enter into time and become one of us in the Incarnation. Eternity met time in a Bethlehem manger. Our all-powerful Creator became an infant and lived within a family. And with His conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, God changed time forever. Through His life, death, and resurrection, time itself was redeemed. The perpetual “now” of God has infused human history with His presence in ways we might rarely imagine, but through which He continues to reveal Himself to us.  

Jesus, as the second person of the Holy Trinity, has always existed. Jesus became a child in Bethlehem. Jesus exists always as the infant born to Mary, and the child in the Temple, and the young man at the wedding in Cana. Jesus is always calling His disciples to follow Him. He is always curing the sick and raising the dead. He is always celebrating the Last Supper and being abandoned in the Garden. Jesus is always being stripped and beaten, and carrying His Cross. He is always suffering and dying for us, just as He is always rising in glory and appearing to those who love Him. Jesus is always ascending to His Father, always reigning in heaven. His eternal presence in time is yet one more way that He extends Himself and offers His love to us, at each step in our own earthly journeys. Because He became one of us in all ways but sin, His life among us shares all our earthly joys, our hopes and fears and sufferings. Through His life, through His time as a man on this earth, Jesus opens the door to eternity for us. Through His life, we see the face our merciful God and by His Cross, we find our hope. Whenever we prayerfully read the Gospel, we can experience the “now” of Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection. The mystery of our salvation is at once an historical fact and, at the same time, as immediate as the air we breathe. And even more essential to life.  

Physics tells us that time and space are a mathematical function and it uses the language of math to describe it. All of that is beyond my meager skills. But I know that Jesus hears me when I pray to Him as the baby in the manger. I know that He hears me when I pray to Him as the child at His mother’s knee. I know that He hears me when I pray to Him as the young man at Cana, the rabbi in the Temple, the weeping friend at Lazarus’ tomb, and the suffering Savior on the Cross. I know that every moment of His historical life is an opportunity for me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him. In Christ, all time and eternity meet—and He invites us in, to be with Him.  

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” 

           —–St. Augustine  

The Sweet Prayers of the Saints

We’ve all seen those “reality” shows that follow the celebrity-of-the-minute in their daily lives. Most of them have one or more personal assistants. These are the people that do all the real work around the place. They organize and schedule, they burp the babies and clean the house, thus allowing the celebrity to get their hair and makeup done (also by someone else), have an overly-dramatic love life and generally lounge about eating organic, free-range, calorie-free bon-bons.

But I’ve got those reality stars beat. And by a long shot. You see I have an entire group of people working for me. All of them pull 24-hour shifts with no vacations or sick leave. They never complain, never dawdle, and each one of them is faithful, funny, filled with joy and completely unique. They’re my “heavenly committee” of the saints that I love. Just as we ask our friends and family to pray for you, I ask my committee to take my prayers with them to Jesus. After all, these are the folks who love Jesus with their whole hearts and whose earthly lives showed us how to walk with Christ each and every day, through every trial and sorrow and every grace and blessing. Each one of them reveals His mercy and love in different ways to me and they teach me humility and patience and surrender. I can’t imagine my life without their friendship and assistance.

God created us for relationships. He never meant for us to go it alone. God IS relationship, after all, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Jesus sent His disciples out in pairs. He founded a Church made up of believers coming together for prayer and worship. We’re bound to one another in the love of the Holy Spirit, both in this life and our lives-to-come with Him in heaven. Since about the year 100 A.D., the practice of asking those in heaven to pray for us had become a common one. St. John wrote about it in Revelation 5:8 when he says that the saints in heaven offer our prayer to God “as golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Since saints in glory are in complete communion with theLord, those prayers have to be for us. When we ask them to pray for our needs, God hears them and it pleases Him. Just like He hears the prayers of our family and friends on earth. Do you have prayer partners or prayer chains or teams in your church? They are doing exactly what the saints are doing—offering prayers for you to God. Jesus told us to pray for one another (Matthew 5:44) as did St. Paul (I Timothy 2:1-4). It’s good for us to do this. It’s an act of love.

Catholics don’t worship the saints. Asking them to pray for us is as “natural” as asking a friend to pray for us. The statues and paintings and stained glass images of the saints you see in our churches are reminders to us of their lives and examples. It’s like the photos you carry in your wallet to remind you of your family and friends. You don’t worship the photos, you just like being reminded of your love for the people in them. Saints aren’t divine. They’re not angels. They’re people like you and me who are alive in heaven—just like we hope to be someday. After all, each of us is called to sainthood.

Even if you don’t come from a Christian tradition like Catholicism or the Eastern Orthodox Church, why wouldn’t you want the saints in heaven to be praying for you and your family? These are the members of our faith who got it right, who ran the good race and who live now in the very presence of God for all eternity. I’d like to invite everyone reading these words to learn about a saint whose life interests them. Allow Jesus to introduce you to His closest family. You can start with “my committee” if you’d like.

There’s St. Therese of Lisieux who teaches me how to love Jesus as a little child loves her Daddy. St. Catherine of Siena helps me to have courage and to find answers to my questions about my faith. St. Maximilian Kolbe was a priest who gave his own life for a fellow prisoner while they were in the death camp in Auschwitz. He teaches me charity and sacrifice. St. Pio of Pietrelcino (Padre Pio) teaches me to let God be in charge and to ask for miracles every day. There are lots of other saints that I love as well, but googling these names should get you started. They’re waiting to take your prayers, like a golden bowl of incense, and present your praise and your needs to our Lord. Just ask them. 

“When I die, I will send down a shower of roses from heaven. I will spend my heaven by doing good on earth.”
—St. Therese of Lisieux
(1873 – 1897)

Suffering

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

Is Your Church Sick?

We’ve all been in parishes that seemed so alive with the Holy Spirit. We were energized with a passion for our faith, to evangelize and to contribute our time, talents, and treasure. Volunteers were plentiful and full of energy and joy. And the pastor smiled a lot. But there are those parishes where things were different—lots of committee meetings, a financial focus, the same people in the same roles year after year—and a not-so-smiling pastor. It’s a church on life-support. Have hope. When you’re able to recognize some of these early warning signs you’re on the road to helping your parish become what God has called us to be: lighthouses and not clubhouses. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your parish. Are you getting it wrong or right?

1) Your parish doesn’t look like the community around it. Do the folks in the pews reflect the diversity of age, race, income and the overall demographics of your neighborhood? If not, then there’s a disconnect somewhere. Hint: it’s NOT the neighborhood’s fault.

2) It’s a problem if the only thing your community knows about your parish is where the buildings are located. And for some parishes even this might be asking a lot. If you’re invisible to your neighbors you aren’t sharing the light of Christ with them. You’re just a blank spot where Jesus should be. Ouch.

3) Do your ministries spend more time and money on their programs rather than on helping people? Sometimes we can invest a lot of effort DOING our ministry (meetings, planning, recruiting, fundraising, etc.) than we do in actually serving others. What’s the point if all we do is talk about service but rarely actually feed or clothe or visit or comfort someone in need?

4) Is the first question we ask, “How much will it cost?” rather than, “How will it lead people to Christ?” Of course money is one of our parish resources. But only insofar as we can use money to share the Gospel. From which hymnals to buy to which Vacation Bible School program to use—our primary consideration has to be people. Always.

5) Do you think of your church as a “place?” Of course it has a physical address. But the truth is that your church is a parish family with a God-given purpose—and that purpose must look outside of itself for its mission. Too many parishes exist to serve themselves alone. Too few parishes find their purpose in the service of their neighbors. Does your church “stop” at the doors?

6) Every parish wants new members. But some only want new members if they look and act and pray and worship and tithe like the old members. If we aren’t seeking out and embracing our neighbors (of all races, ages, finances, and backgrounds) we’re nothing more than a secular clubhouse. We’re salt that’s lost its flavor and what good are we? (Matthew 5:13).

7) You think it’s the pastor’s job to make all the hospital, nursing facility, and homebound visits. Sure, only the priest can hear their confessions and anoint them with the oil of healing. But it’s every member’s calling to do what Christ tells us: love one another. This means you and me visiting the members of our parish family who can’t come to Mass with us. The pastor isn’t our proxy when it comes to this.

8) And here’s what I think might be the biggest problem in many parishes: half your members are missing. Look around the pews. How many moms bring their children to Mass alone? How many ministry members are women? What are you doing to engage entire families in your parish mission? How are you reaching out to those missing husbands and fathers? And if they do come to Mass, are they just space-holders or do they embrace the call to service? The simple fact is if the men of your parish are spiritually-dead, then so is your parish.

So. How does your church stack up? Is it a living, growing family or the church of the walking dead? Are you the salt and light of your community?

We are called to become a living Gospel in the world.”
—Pope Francis

A Miracle

At the beginning, we were ushered into a large auditorium. Rows and rows of blue-upholstered movie theater seats all facing an elevated stage filled with green plants and, at the rear, a wide theater screen. A mist rolled across the stage from an unseen fog machine. I took my seat just as a rock band jogged on stage in jeans and t-shirts. Without introduction, they erupted into song and the crowd immediately stood. Lyrics were projected onto the screen and lights flashed in time to the beat. “Draw me close to you, never let me go…You are my desire, no one else will do.” After fifteen minutes or so, everyone still standing and singing, the lights slowly faded and a young man in jeans and a faded western shirt walked towards a podium, adjusting his wireless microphone. “Amen!” he screamed, and the music stopped. For the next ninety minutes, he outlined (in talking points projected on the screen) how his church, this church we were in, had grown from 30 families to 1400 families in the last 3 years. He was the opening speaker at this conference on church stewardship and planning.

The notes I took were the words he used to explain the growth of his church. I won’t give the name of it here, but think of any of the “verb” church names you’ve seen: gathering, crossing, living, growing, etc. No mention of God or His Son or any of His saints. Just a verb with no object. I was to think back on that grammatical faux pas a bit as his presentation unfolded. He spoke to us of “professional worship” and how a successful preacher “prayed with authority” before his congregation. He stressed the importance of using “the right backline” for “performances” as well as lighting and projection and cellphone apps. He spoke of “worship teams” and the “skill sets” they needed to possess. Everything had to work together seamlessly for a “dynamic worship experience.” People had to feel “connected” and “plugged in.” “Small groups” met weekly to emphasize Sunday’s “talking points.” He showed us how he humbly prayed on stage, head down, palms open, whispering “Father God…” There was more, but I had stopped taking notes.  

I realized that what he and I imagined worship to be were very different things. His church model seemed to be built more like a business than a vineyard. It made me uncomfortable because this model is often upheld today. The vocabulary he used sometimes sneaks its way into parish council meetings. Sometimes we think we need to be more like the “verb” churches in order “to keep up with the times.” Stewardship can easily adopt the speech of data analysis and business planning. And I’ve been guilty of that, of seeing my parish as a franchise of some larger corporation.

But then I walk into my church. My beautiful church, filled with the smell of incense and beeswax. I see the statutes of the Saints, reminding me that ordinary people can, by His grace, walk with the angels. The sunlight falls in jewels through the stained glass above. There is an altar here, not a stage, and altar rails, not a fog machine. Above the altar, my Savior hangs on a Cross. Whenever I need to be reminded of what Church is, I look to Him there. On this altar, He becomes my holy food, nourishing me in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This sublime holiness is beyond any talking points. No amount of artificial fog or light shows can improve on this communion. God has no need of enhancement. Our words here are “adoration” and “transubstantiation.” We sing the Psalms and we reverence suffering and sacrifice. Hardly the skill sets that would attract great numbers. In our worship, we use water and oil and wine and unleavened bread. Ashes mark us all as the sinners we are. We fast. We fail. We go to confession and we try again. We mark each day as a feast of a Saint, to whom we look for inspiration. We embrace the mother of our Lord as our own mother, tender and loving, always pointing us to her Son. We witness a miracle at every Mass. We believe in miracles. We have to. Because we don’t have professional sound systems and our hymns are too old and complicated to sound like Taylor Swift. We’re bad at talking points. We’re made up of sinners, each and every one of us–including me, including every priest, every bishop, every Cardinal, and every Pope. So, it’s a miracle of God that the Catholic Church is still here after 2000 years. I don’t know what we’d do if we depended on a business model for our worship. I just know what Jesus said:

“And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

        —–Matthew 16:18 

Lent: A Time of Listening

“There are days when you just don’t think you can go on. You’re exhausted but there’s no end to what you have to do. Each day is like a treadmill that’s running on high speed and it’s all you can do to keep up. If you could only have some time to rest, to recover, and to catch your breath. You don’t think you can make it anymore.” This is what the world says to you. But don’t listen to the world.

“You feel so bad that it had happened–that you had done it. What had you been thinking? It makes you feel so guilty and you hate remembering it. Who could ever love you if they knew about it? You hate yourself for it. There’s nothing you could do to make things right again. It’s like a terrible weight that you’re forced to carry all by yourself.” This is what the world says to you. But don’t listen to the world.  

“She’s one of your closest friends, so you have to help her out with this. She needs your support. She says it would wreck her career right now. After all, it won’t be her first one. The whole thing will be over in just a few hours. You can drive her to her appointment and be home in time for dinner. It’s her body. And, after all, everyone says it’s just a clump of cells.” This is what the world says to you. But don’t listen to the world.

“You just can’t stand to listen to him anymore. He stands for everything you can’t and won’t tolerate. He believes his opinions are the only correct ones. This past election season was horrible because he disagreed with everything you said to him. How can anybody be that stupid? This friendship just isn’t worth it anymore.” This is what the world says to you. But don’t listen to the world.

“What a sexist pig! He must think that the only reason women exist in the world is for his pleasure. He could never view a woman as his intellectual equal. He won’t even have dinner alone with a woman, except for his wife. What a disrespectful attitude to women!” This is what the world says to you. But don’t listen to the world.

“She’s there every day on the sidewalk outside. Filthy, dirty, and smelling so bad it’s almost unbearable. There are shelters for people like her, so why won’t she go to one? You never put any money in her old coffee can. She’d probably just use it to buy a cheap bottle of wine. You wish she’d move to a different spot so you wouldn’t have to see her every day. What a waste!” This is what the world says to you. But don’t listen to the world.  

How often do we listen to the voice of the world rather than to the words of our loving Savior? Perhaps because we allow the world to drone in through television and social media. We run from the silence in which we need to dwell in order to hear the whisper of God. But the Lord is always near us, longing to be heard and to listen; longing to reassure us of His love and forgiveness. There’s nothing we can do to make Him love us less; nothing we need fear from going to Him in repentance. He invites us to forgive others, to see and to support the poor among us, to stand up for life and for marriage. Only God can give us the peace and the rest that we’re looking for. Easter is the promise of His love fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The sound of the stone rolling away from the tomb can silence the clamor and noise of the world, if we allow it. Listen for the His voice especially during these days of Lent ahead of us. He is peace. He is love.  

“…in the world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have conquered the world.”

          —John 16:33 

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