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Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Road to Jericho and What We Fail To Do...

Notice the two in the background...
"I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned; in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do..." (Penitential Act)

It's funny, alright, maybe not in the ha-ha amusing way but in an interesting sense nonetheless, we pray that prayer every Sunday at Mass but, when most of us think of sin, we think of things we have done and not what we have not done.  It's the obvious that jars our consciences.

However, the subtleties of sin, lie in our failures; that beggar we avoid at the red light so as to avoid giving him a buck, the friend who asks us for a favor and we come up with a lame excuse because we don't want to be bothered or the leaving of something we could have done to our spouse of because of, well, laziness (In my case; guilty, guilty, guilty!).

Last Tuesday, I found myself on that road to Jericho in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  However, instead of being the Samaritan, I was more like the priest and Levite, who saw the victim dying by the side of the road and crossed to the other side to avoid him.

Let me start from the beginning.  There's an eccentric French lady that lives near my house, who for some strange reason started showing up unannounced at our house for us to give her rides to meetings at our parish, if you can imagine that!  This could have been on a random Tuesday or Wednesday night, or on a night there was a special event that we were attending.  It didn't matter.  Not wanting to be rude and thinking it was our Christian duty, we took her several times.

She's a widow, as I found out, during one of our conversations to and from our destination and she moved to Miami after her husband's death.  Her children are already grown and living on their own in other parts of the country so she moved to the States to be closer to them but was living on her own in South Florida (with her dog).

In recent months, we haven't seen much of her much after, one time, she showed up for a ride at an inopportune time and I told her, possibly a bit curt, if not outright rude, that I couldn't give her a ride. In all honesty, I was getting a bit perturbed that she kept showing up asking and expecting a ride!  In hindsight, I feel terrible about my lack of charity; maybe it's my Catholic guilt!

In any case, on Tuesday, as I was rushing to the market to pick up dinner because I noticed that the meat I was planning on cooking was going to take way too long to prepare and I needed a Plan B, there she was walking by herself on the sidewalk, pushing a cart in the direction of the market I was heading to.  For a minute, I thought about pulling over and taking her the rest of the way.

However, as I got closer, I started thinking of whether this was going to start the cycle going again and I really didn't want it to.  So, I turned left at the corner before reaching her.

Yes, just two days removed from a spiritual retreat, where I came out feeling inspired to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned, I found myself avoiding a woman, like the Jehovah's Witnesses knocking at the door, because I didn't want to go through the trouble.  

But, wait, the story gets worse.  As I am driving away in turmoil about what I am doing, I decide to turn back and take her.  It's like I have the angel and the demon battling over my shoulder; one saying to pick her up because it's the Christian thing to do.  The other saying, "You're in a hurry, she's already almost there.  So what if it rains?  She must be used to walking in the rain in France! Besides, for all you can tell, she's not hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned."

I came around with my car to the street she was still walking on and the demon was saying, "Look, she's even closer now and if you pick her up, then the right thing to do would be to wait for her to finish shopping to take her back home.  Your family will get upset that dinner is going to be late because you were waiting for her to finish shopping!  And, look, she's all sweaty.  She's going to stink up your car." Son of a bi#$%!  The demon won!  I rode right past her and pretended not to recognize her.

Wow!  After ten years of walking in the Light of Christ, and having gone out of my way on many occasions for others, I still revert to my base!  And so deliberately!  What a fine example of loving my neighbor.  Sad.

Yet, the struggle between doing what is right and doing what is convenient is real.  It's a choice that every Christian is forced to make with regularity.  While, there's no doubt part of me wanted to help, I didn't and the more I don't the easier it gets.  

It reminded of a line C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, "The more often he (man) feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel."    

Sin is sin, whether obvious or sublime.  It separates us from God.  At the center of sin is I.  Any time, I put "I" at the center of my actions, more than likely, there is sin.  In fact, the more obscure, the more dangerous they can be.

Again from Screwtape, "It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.  Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.  Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one -- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."

The key then is getting to the point, where we recognize when stumble, repenting and seeking God's forgiveness. I've been asking for forgiveness ever since and will be taking it to the Confessional as soon as I can.

In the meantime, I'm hopeful, God will give me another opportunity to be the Good Samaritan and whether it's with our French neighbor, or someone else He puts in my path, I will not fail to do again...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Jesus, Religion and My Friends...

He's got it all wrong...
An old and dear friend recently posted a video on Facebook of a rap poem that went viral five years ago, about hating religion but loving Jesus.

Among its many claims, the poet suggests that Christ came to abolish the institutionalized practice of devotion to God because of corruption.

It's amazing.  The video has over 32 million views!

I first saw it during the height of the frenzy, as well as several responses, including by Bishop Robert Barron and Fr. Claude Burns (aka Fr. Pontifex on YouTube, who produced his own clever rap poem using the same motif as the original) but it got me thinking, about all those millions of people, who, maybe like my friend, agree, or at least sympathize, with the poet's claim to loath religion in a culture that is so infused with a warped sense of individuality and freedom.

Unfortunately today, instead of an Absolute Truth, which dictates and shapes our understanding and guides our moral behavior, truth, with a small t, has become subject to interpretation. Therefore, one man's truth is as valid as the next guy's and his, is as valid as the one next to him and so on.  It's part of the "coexist" mentality.

Meanwhile, in all this individualism and freedom (Which by the way, Lincoln once said, "is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought"), our relationship with God has suffered in the process. God has been bent and contoured to fit the image and likeness of the individual, instead of the individual transforming his life to fit God.  So, if someone doesn't like the message of the church they're attending because it doesn't fit their lifestyle, they go down the block and find one that does.

As Catholic author/speaker Stephen Ray said at a conference I attended recently, "Americans choose their churches and their morals like they choose their restaurants; how they feel that day."

In this case, the poetic rapper makes the point that it's all about him and Jesus; a vertical relationship, which has no room for authority, doctrine and, least of all, religion.

But, did Jesus mean it to be just about a relationship without religion?

Last weekend, I was at one of, what I regularly call, my biannual weekend getaways with the boys, although, I point out, it is without alcohol, drugs, tattoos, debauchery or the traps that Hollywood movies like to showcase.

It was a retreat, meant to lead men, from all walks of life, ages and faith backgrounds, to a closer relationship with Jesus and His Church, which I have been involved with for the past ten years.

The power of the Cross...
Yet, as long as I have been serving on these spiritual sanctums, it took until this year, while I was running errands and thinking about the hating religion and loving Jesus video that my friend posted, for me to realize that the underline theme of the retreats, and this last one in particular, is the Cross, and its vertical and horizontal relational components.

What I mean by that is that, according to Jesus' own words, the greatest Commandments are to love God (vertical) and love our neighbor (horizontal).  So, our faith was never meant to be individualistic and inward but public and outward.

In fact, at one point on Saturday, one of the men I was talking to shared that, while he wanted to believe in God, his faith was still a struggle for him, which reminds me of the father, whose son was possessed, and, after Jesus cures him, says, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief."

I told him that, for me, one of the ways I know God exists is because I feel His presence through the brotherhood in the holy grounds of the retreat house, which is why I keep coming back!  God becomes real in the love we share with one another, the service we render, the peace we experience and the lives we impact. It's surreal. That's the horizontal aspect of the Cross.

So, it's not just about me and Jesus because that's not what Jesus taught.

I remember, before attending my first men's getaway, when I was one of those people who said I believed in God "in my own way."  And, I didn't need the Pope, or the Church, or anybody else telling me how or what to believe. Maybe, I was a lot more like the rapper poet in the video, than I would like to admit.

However, the more I learned about my faith and the more I studied the Bible, the more I understood that it's not just about me and God.  It's about me and God and the person in the pew next to me, and my family, and my friends, and my co-workers and the people I come across on any given day.

It's about family; God's family, which is what the Bible is all about.

Jesus called us to take care of one another, even our enemies, and said that our final judgement was not going to be based on our relationship or our faith but on our love and service for others; "For I was hungry and you gave me to eat; thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me; in prison and you came to me; ... whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me." (Matt 25:31-40)

The keys to the kingdom of heaven...
Let's also keep in mind that Jesus was a devout Jew, who observed the Jewish customs, including Passover, attending service at the Temple, affirming Scripture, the Commandments and the Law of the Prophets.

Furthermore, He tells His disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach." (Matt 23:2-3)

While He railed against corruption of the religious of His time, He also said He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

In any case, the bottom line is this; Christ knew the human condition.  He understood well that left to our own devices, our pride, egos and self-righteousness would eventually lead to division and strife, including about the faith.

That is why He did not leave us a book.  He founded and left us a Church (And, dare I say a religion), which He founded upon the Rock of Peter, which He gave the Keys to the Kingdom.  A Church, whom He promised the Holy Spirit to guide to "all the truth," gave the power to "bind and loose on earth what would be bound and loosed in heaven," said that whoever listens to them, listens to Him and whoever rejects them, rejected the one who sent Him, and vowed the "gates of hell would never prevail against."

Members of His Church, the Apostles and their successors, have been heeding to Jesus' Last Command to make disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ever since.  They preserved and passed on the teachings of Christ from generation to generation.  They compiled and canonized the books of the Bible. They started the hospital and university systems, established orphanages, helped the poor, the sick and the downtrodden and became the largest charitable organization on the planet.

Two thousand years later, despite continuous attempts to destroy it both from without and from within, His Church (And religion) is over one billion strong, and, just as its founder, has and will always be a sign of contradiction in the culture; no matter what the popular opinion may be.

You can't have a king without his kingdom and you can't have Jesus without His Church (And Religion), no matter how many views a video may get...

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Priest and the Hour That Will Change Your Life...

Speaking from the heart...
If there is a Catholic priest that could give a Protestant Megachurch Pastor a run for his money, albeit with a different kind of altar call and sans the accompanying rock band, it may be Fr. Mike Schmitz.

He's funny.  He's charismatic.  He's passionate, entertaining and his extensive biblical insight and communication skills are unquestionable.   And they shouldn't be.

The dynamic priest specializes in reaching young people in universities throughout the United States, as head of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, speaking engagements and his work on social media.

He creates short videos, about five to ten minutes long, on topics ranging from the Meaning of Suffering, Aren't All Churches the Same and Why do Bad Things Happen to Can I get a Tattoo, Batman v. Superman and Will My Pet Be in Heaven and anything in between.  He has over 200 videos (You can check them out here).  

Yet, he's more than just a teacher.  He captivates, provokes and inspires.  To top it off, he's blessed with Hollywood good-looks and a Midwestern humility.

This particular talk below, which he delivered at the SEEK Conference in Nashville, Tennessee to college students in 2015, is a bit on the long side.  I discovered it after listening to Fr. Mike mention it on a recent radio show he was on.  The title peaked my interest: "The Hour That Will Change Your Life."

It's hard to find the time in today's whirlwind life we live to listen to a priest talk on a video.  Let's face it, when a priest surpasses the fifteen minute mark in his homily at Mass, some parishioners start getting restless and twenty minutes might draw arguing and grumbling like the Jews in the sixth chapter of John's Gospel. But, let me tell you, after listening to this 45-minute talk, I was glad I did. By the end of it, I had tears in my eyes.  It's that powerful.

The thing is that if we can understand what a true personal relationship with Christ is meant to be, then we can start to understand what our relationship with others is meant to be, especially our spouse, whose one flesh relationship between husband and wife, St. Paul compares to that of Christ and His Church in his Letter to the Ephesians (Chapter 5).

I won't spoil it.  I just want you to take the time to watch and listen, as I did last Friday and have two more times since.

I know, I know.  We don't have time.  Yet, we take the time to fill our heads with so much mundane and mind-numbing nonsense on social media and TV every day.  I know because I spend way too many hours in front of the boob tube watching Mets games, binge-watching Vikings episodes or trying to watch Deadpool for the umpteenth time, which I'm forced to turn off whenever the kids get home (I guess the lesson that's not filtering is that if it's morally objectionable for my kids to watch, it might be less than appropriate for me to watch as well)!

So, why not take the time to fill our hearts and spirits with something that may change your life?

And please, share your thoughts with me in the comments box when you do.  Was it as powerful for you as it was for me?  I sure hope so...

Sunday, May 7, 2017

May Feelings, Elvis and the Battle of Lepanto...

"Give me an army saying the Rosary and I will conquer the world." --Bl. Pope Pius IX.

I love that video.  It was first posted on YouTube in 2009 but every time I watch it, I get inspired.

It was the brainchild of a 23-year-old Spanish filmmaker, Santiago Requejo, who says he was just sitting around with some friends listening to Elvis Presley one day, when a song came on called, "The Miracle of the Rosary."

They were shocked, not only because there was a song dedicated to the Rosary and the Blessed Mother, but because Elvis was not even Catholic!  Yet, there he was singing about the Rosary.  It got them thinking; if Elvis, who was Protestant, was honoring the Virgin Mary, then they had to do something too.

The fact that it was four days before May, the month the Church honors the Blessed Mother and asks the faithful to pray the Rosary, prompted them to produce an earlier video using 50 friends who said why they liked to pray the Rosary.  This music video came a year later and they have produced at least eight versions of May Feelings since.

The Rosary is a powerful prayer that, for me, led me to a yearning for reading the Bible.  Since the mysteries are based on passages of scripture, I was moved to read the full contexts of the passages I was praying about. Before long, I got hooked, not only on the Rosary but on the Bible!

At any rate, while Pope Pius IX's quote at the beginning of this blog may sound a little strange, it may not be far from the truth.

Even though, Europe today is being conquered by what some have referred as the "Silent Jihad," where Muslim families are having eight children for every one that Christian families have, and studies indicate that, unless this changes drastically and quickly, Muslims will be a majority in Europe during the next few decades, the continent would have already been under Muslim control since the 16th Century, if not for the Rosary!

Battle of Lepanto...
It was at the Battle of Lepanto, where a comprised fleet, organized by Pope Pius V (a popular papal name, if you haven't noticed), which included ships from the Holy See, Venice, Genoa and Spain, held off the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire, which was steam rolling through the region conquering everything in its path and had not lost a major naval battle since the 15th century.

As the powerful forces approached the small port town of Lepanto, which was strategically situated for the Ottoman Empire's push into Europe, and threatened Christianity in the entire region, the Pope implored Catholics to pray the Rosary and ask for the Virgin Mary's intersession.

In five hours, the superior Ottoman Empire was defeated and forced to retreat.  The Pope was so elated that the date was declared as the feast day of Our Lady of Victory, which later became the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (read more here)....

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Convert, Manhood and the Armor of God...

King Elendil and the Battle of the Alliance... 
Edmund Burke once said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Of course, in a world where masculinity is suffering under the weight of faithlessness, apathy and distraction, the increase role of women due, in part, to financial needs, no-fault divorce, women's liberation and single-mother parenting and the confusion of gender equality, where the meaning of manhood and womanhood is up for grabs, getting men to want to do "something" is becoming as elusive as finding the ring of power in Tolkien's fantastical Middle-earth.

But, the battle is never lost.  The quest continues and many good men are stepping "into the breach," as the Archbishop of Phoenix Thomas Olmsted called it in his exhortation letter to Catholic men a few years ago.  

Each year, the Archdiocese of Miami tries to do its part by bringing good men together, in hopes of inspiring them to do something.  

For the past seven years, anywhere from 350-750 men have gathered at the Annual Men's Conference, usually held at St. Mark's Church in SW Ranches, to grow in faith, bond with other men who are trying to live their faith, participate in a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Wenski, pray, reflect and listen to nationally renowned speakers such as Dr. Scott Hahn, Tim Staples, Fr. Larry Richards, Jesse Romero, Matthew Leonard and, this year, Stephen Ray.

Ray, a former anti-Catholic Baptist, who converted to the Catholic faith along with his wife in 1994, after a long and arduous internal struggle, which cost them many of friends and family in the process, has since served as a Catholic Evangelist, author and Holy Land tour guide.  
Stephen Ray and me...

He is a gifted and dynamic speaker, who I hear regularly on my favorite podcast to and from work, Catholic Answers Live and also knew from his best-selling book, Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church, which started as a letter to his father explaining his conversion.  So, when I heard he was the guest speaker this year, I quickly signed up!    

I attended the conference with two friends from my parish and, as I have done in the past, I took notes so I could share them with you.  These are some quotes from Stephen Ray:      
“If you can change men, you can change the world.”

"God has a weak heart for any of his children who gets down on their knees and asks for help.”

“All churches in early Christianity had an altar.  Martin Luther got rid of the altar and replaced it with a podium.”

“There is no pope in Protestantism; no final word.  When Martin Luther got rid of the pope, he created a billion others who became their own pope.”

“It’s a scandal to the world that Christianity is so divided.”

“Americans choose their churches and their morals like they choose their restaurants; how they feel that day.”

“In the Bible, first came the teachings of Christ, the Magisterium, then came Tradition, passed on by the Apostles, and then came the Bible.”

“I had my wife to myself and the kids came along and I didn’t have my wife to myself anymore.”

“The American society is attacking the family more than any other culture in history.”

“The Devil wants to destroy the family.”

“God is like a GPS; every time we screw up, all we have to do is turn to Him and He’ll tell us how to get back on the right path.”

“Purgatory is the front porch of heaven.”

“A father is a reflection of God.  How kids see God is through their vision of their father.”

“The family is where you learn morals, relationships and resolving conflict.”

“You can tell something about the painter through his art.  God is an artist.”

In reference to Ephesians 5, where it states for wives to be submissive to their husbands and husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her,” Ray said, “Any husband who puts his wife’s needs over his own will never have to worry about his wife being submissive; she’s going to want to be submissive.”

“Good sex is the roadway to heaven.  God made us sexual creatures.  We help each other become holy.  But it has to be on God’s terms not ours. ”

“The family should be a factory for making saints.”

“Men became passive because the culture continuously tells us that we’re idiots.”

“The most important thing that a father can do for his kids is to love their mother.”

“We’re living in a pagan world.”

“We’re like returning to the Garden of Eden where man wants to be his own God.”

“Pluralism and relativism are the modern version of pantheism and paganism.”

“Abortion is a modern sacrificial offering to pagan deities.”

“More Christians have been martyred in the last 100 years then in the 1900 years before.”

Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

“Christians are the ones that can show the world there’s a reason to live and a reason to die.”

“We need to teach our young people what it means to be Catholic.”

“Christianity is a manly sport; no more sissy comfortable Catholicism.”

“We can get the culture turning the other way, if we swim against the tide.”...

This final one reminds me of the GK Chesterton quote, that I have used in the past, "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only the living can go against it."

Therefor, it's time to call upon the hobbit, the elf and the dwarf, put aside complacency and find Frodo Baggins and the ring because, as St. Paul wrote, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm." (Eph 6: 12-13)...