Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

Asking too much

I have been deeply saddened by the way the Catholic Church has been represented by the media in the past few weeks.  In yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, there was yet another article negatively depicting the Catholic Church. Each time I read one of these articles, I am disheartened by both the tone and the lack of knowledge of the true teachings of the Church that these articles seem to display.

In his latest column, Frank Bruni confronts the issue of celibacy in the priesthood. To be sure, there are intelligent and valid arguments for allowing priests to marry.  To clarify, priestly celibacy—that is, not allowing priests to marry—is a church discipline, which means that a future Pope, if inspired to do so, can change this teaching. Priest were allowed to marry in the early Church.  Peter, the first Pope of the Catholic Church, was married (see Matthew 8:14, in which Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law.)

Rather than focus on the genuine reasons for allowing priests to marry, Bruni cheapens the vow of celibacy.  He writes, “…let’s give a moment’s thought to loneliness. And longing. And this: the pledge of celibacy that the church requires of its servants is an often cruel and corrosive thing. It runs counter to human nature. It asks too much.”

What Bruni seems to be missing is that Catholicism, and Christianity more broadly, is based on the idea of “asking too much.”  We are about sacrifice. One needs to look no further than the cross to explain what sacrifice means to the Catholic Church. Sacrifice is everything. One could argue, “God asked too much of Christ when God asked His son to be tortured, to die on a cross.” Indeed, Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. So isn’t it fitting that the men who are chosen to be representations of Christ on earth, in persona Christi, sacrifice something seemingly unthinkable in our hyper-sexualized culture?

If the Church someday changes its teachings on allowing priests to marry, I trust that it is what God wants for God’s Church.  But New York Times Opinion page—show a range of opinions.  Please. This reader is tired of the same negative portrayal of a sacred institution.

peace in the kitchen

Yesterday I was in a major funk.

I wanted so badly to write, but no thoughts came. I sat in front of my computer for two hours, my cup of tea in hand, willing the words to come. My thoughts were all over the place. I am quite homesick, and filled with uncertainty about my life.  I wrote up a draft, then tossed it—too many loose ends. I did all of the usual things to help me get out of this foul mood—I went to the gym, made dinner. No improvement. I resorted to my secret weapon for times like this—baking.

I’ve written before about my love for “The Barefoot Contessa” show on the Food Network.  But baking really does get me through difficult emotional times.  So last night I pulled out our KitchenAid mixer, my measuring cups, jars of flour, sugar, baking powder, and I started to feel calm. I measured out all of my ingredients, followed my recipe exactly, and put my delicious-smelling banana bread in the oven. And some weight on my shoulders is lifted and I feel like “me” again.

As I was cleaning up after baking, my husband remarked that baking always makes me feel better, he can see the difference. I quickly responded without thinking, “I love baking because I can control it. It’s precise.  I know exactly how much I need to measure, and if I measure everything exactly, I will have a beautiful, delicious product in the end.”

Only while I was laying in bed last night did the significance of that thought dawn on me.  I like baking because it makes me feel like I am in control of my life, even for an hour. When I think about it, the majority of my anxiety comes from feeling like I can’t control my life—I’m not sure what God is calling me to do with my life, I miss my family, my friends, and I still feel so very new and out of sorts in my new life.  What I need to do is trust that God is working in my life, God is the master baker, measuring, teasing out exactly who God created me to be.

Today my prayer is that I can learn to rely on God to bring me peace, instead of relying on my KitchenAid. I will, of course, continue to bake my banana bread and scones and other delights (I’d have a riot on my hands if I stopped…), but I need to rely on God more. Here’s to hoping.

Transfigure us, O Lord

Today’s Gospel reading is the Transfiguration of Jesus, and to be honest, this reading is not one of my personal favorites. I find the mystical nature of the story to be difficult—though, as a Hebrew Bible geek, I love Moses’ cameo.  Give me Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, healing blind Bartimaeus, calming the storm at sea—these stories I love. But Jesus in dazzling robes at the top of a mountain? I find that hard to relate to.

However, at Mass this morning, our pastor’s homily shed new light on this story.  Transfigure means metamorphosis, to transform into something more beautiful or elevated.  The key to the Gospel, Fr. Joe explained, is that Jesus did not change who he was—but rather, revealed his deepest, truest self—his divinity.

A common way to describe a metamorphosis is to use the analogy of a caterpillar and a butterfly. The caterpillar and the butterfly are in fact the same creature, but the butterfly is the transfigured form of the caterpillar. The butterfly is the more beautiful, perfected, form of the caterpillar. Jesus, transfigured, is still in his human body, but displays his fully divine, perfect, nature.

Isn’t this what Lent is all about?  During this season we are called to be transfigured, to shed off all of ourselves that is not of God, and to become more like the one who made us.  Lent may be our spiritual “cocoon”—we make sacrifices, we engage in small spiritual practices to bring us closer to God—and then emerge at Easter as a new creation—the “butterfly” version of ourselves.  My prayer today is that my Lenten practices will enable me to become a better version of myself, to more closely resemble the person who God made me to be.

Transfigure us, O Lord,
transfigure us, O Lord.
Break the chains that bind us;
speak your healing word,
and where you lead we’ll follow.
Transfigure us, O Lord.

~Bob Hurd

Called to obedience

Last week, when news of the Pope’s resignation broke, I rearranged the day’s lesson so my classes were able to devote an entire period to discussion. We talked about the Pope’s reasons for resigning, how we felt about the Pope’s legacy, and discussed the play-by-play of what would happen in the next few weeks leading up to conclave.  As the bell rang, I asked the students to pay extra-close attention to the news, radio, and newspapers over the next few weeks. “See if you can find any relevant articles to bring to class for discussion,” I suggested.

Well, I found an article of my own to bring in! Frank Bruni’s article in the New York Times on Monday, “The Pope’s Muffled Voice,” was exactly the kind of article that I was hoping to find.  I teach Catholic Morality, and I am constantly looking for displays of moral/amoral/immoral thinking in today’s world.  Topics such as the HHS mandate, abortion, physician assisted suicide are frequent topics of discussion, but I am always on the lookout for more nuanced issues.  And I stumbled upon a jackpot with this article.  You can read the full text of the article here, but I’d like to focus on the final paragraph of the article:

“Does the pope fully appreciate this drift? Every Sunday, he looks from his window onto St. Peter’s Square and sees adoring, rapt masses…But here in America, the Catholics watching closely are fewer and fewer. They’re Christian. They’re caring. They’re moral. But they have minds and wills of their own, and no conclave will change that.”

I cannot wait to see what my students have to say about this quote. You see, the very first chapter of our morality book addresses subjective and objective truth. Subjective truth is, of course, “subject” to each individual.  Objective truth is exactly that—objective. How I feel about an objective truth does not change matters at all. As Catholics, we believe that Catholic morality and Catholic teaching are revealed, not man-made, and these revelations are objective truths. God himself determines what is good or evil—not me.  This is not a popular idea.  The phrase “cafeteria Catholic” describes this phenomenon—one who picks and chooses which pieces of Church teaching one will obey.  Well, as I wrote in a previous article, a Catholic is a Catholic is a Catholic.  We are called to obedience, we are called to foster understanding, we are called to be Church.

There are times when I find it really difficult to agree with the Church’s teachings. But I am humble enough to admit that I am not the moral authority of the universe.  God, through the Holy Spirit, inspires the Divine Revelation and Tradition on which Church teaching is based, and God identifies objective truth. Not me. Yes, I have a mind and a will of my own, but I try each day to conform my will to God’s.  It is difficult. I often fail. Obedience is difficult and involves humility, a virtue that is seemingly on the decline in our postmodern world.  Our problems with obedience—as individuals, as a Church—change nothing about what is objectively good.  We are still called to obey Church teaching.  In the words of Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own), “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”

unconditional love

If you are looking for a good devotional for Lent, check out the daily “3 minute Retreat” from Loyola Press. It is a lovely way to find a few moments of peace each day.  This morning, I sat with my freshly brewed cup of coffee and prayed today’s retreat. Today’s theme is “unconditional love,” using the story of the Prodigal Son as the focal point.  I find that each time I hear the story of the Prodigal Son, I hear something new.  Today the story got me thinking about how blessed we are to have such a loving, forgiving God.

I love being Catholic, and I have to say, one of my favorite parts of Catholicism is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I have to admit that I didn’t always see the need for Reconciliation.  As a child (and let’s be honest, as an adult as well) I found it difficult to acknowledge when I was wrong.   I remember one afternoon before Mass, many years ago, my Mom made my brothers and me go to Reconciliation, and I felt that I had absolutely nothing to confess.  Since I was a perfect little kid, (ha!) I really could not think of a single thing to confess to this priest. So, I lied. I made up all kinds of sins.  Then, after receiving absolution, I marched right out of that confessional and got back in line. When I returned to the same priest a few minutes later, he looked at me quizzically but didn’t acknowledge that I had been there a mere five minutes earlier.

So I mustered up my courage and said, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was five minutes ago.”

“What would you like to confess?” he asked with a hint of a smile.

“I lied to a priest,” I admitted sheepishly.

He laughed, and gently explained to me that I was forgiven for all of my sins, that God knows what is truly in my heart. I felt much better after that.  If God would forgive me for lying to a PRIEST, he would certainly forgive me for being mean to my brothers.

Unfortunately I no longer have trouble coming up with my list of sins for confession! But I feel humbled that God loves me unconditionally. All I need to do is acknowledge to God that I have failed, and God lovingly welcomes me home. Imagine how different our world would be if we could each forgive each other in such a way.  If we were to humbly accept God’s forgiveness and mercy and then extend that same forgiveness and love to others.

Today, how can I express unconditional love?

called to be different

I love today’s first reading because it contains one of those verses that is just so much more meaningful when it is read in Hebrew! I am always telling my students to learn Hebrew, and they mostly laugh at me and think I am a Bible geek, but really, there is so much meaning in this beautiful ancient language.

In today’s first reading, God tells Moses “Speak to the whole assembly of the children of Israel and tell them:  Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.”  Poor Moses, always charged with delivering these tall orders to the Israelites.  No wonder he had such a temper.

When I think of a “holy” person, I think of someone who prays a lot, someone who is close to God. A person who obeys the Commandments, maybe, a person who is kind and loves everyone they meet. To be honest, holiness, to me, seems at times to be an unattainable goal. Holy people certainly aren’t impatient, type-A personalities who worry all the time, right?

But here, the Hebrew saves me from my own preconceived notions of holiness.

The Hebrew word for holy, qadosh, does not mean righteous, pious, perfect, or anything of the sort. It means “set apart for a distinct purpose.”   When I think of that definition of holy, I see something attainable. I believe that God calls each one of us to be qadosh, that is, set apart for a distinct purpose—to know, to love, and to serve God.   I certainly don’t always know what my distinct purpose is.  But, when I think of holiness in its true form, I realize suddenly that being “holy” is attainable. I can be holy even in my failures, even in my brokenness. I am holy each day as I strive to be patient, to be a good wife, daughter, sister, friend, teacher—even when I fail.

So when you feel like you aren’t “holy” enough, think again. God has created each of us to be qadosh—set apart, different, for a specific purpose.  And that is a beautiful thing.

The Papacy is not the Presidency

In a nearly unprecedented move, Pope Benedict XVI will retire from the papacy at the end of the month.  He has humbly explained that he no longer has strength enough to perform the duties entrusted to him as leader of the universal Catholic Church.  Yet, rather than celebrate the humility of this selfless act, the majority of articles have become an all-out venting session for people to detail the ways in which the Pope, and the Catholic Church more broadly, has failed them.  With headlines like “Farewell to an Uninspiring Pope,” “The Pope Can Still Right the Wrongs,” and articles that describe Pope Benedict XVI as “a theological conservative with uncompromising views on homosexuality and women priests,” it is clear that we are missing the mark.

These misconceptions are a product of our culture here in the United States. In this country we elect our leader, we suffer through years and months of campaigning, until finally a winner is elected.  We give over our hopes, dreams, and tax dollars to this president. “This will be the time for change,” we think.  We want our government to protect us, to enact policy changes commensurate with our needs.  The President is bound by our Constitution, and we have several branches of government to keep the executive branch in check. We watch and we wait and we eventually write about all of the things that our President is doing, has done, or will do wrong.

The duty of the Pope is not to enact change where the people see fit. We need look no further than the electoral proceedings for a new Pope. The “people” of the Church, by and large, do not have a say in who will be the next leader of the Catholic Church. Rather, a college of a maximum of 120 Cardinals, each under the age of 80, casts a vote. Why the age restriction? Pope John Paul II writes in Universi Dominici Gregis, “The reason for this provision is the desire not to add to the weight of such venerable age the further burden of responsibility for choosing the one who will have to lead Christ’s flock in ways adapted to the needs of the times.”  Several of these cardinals have been appointed by the Pope himself during his papacy (for example, as of January 26, 2013, there are 118 electors; 51 have been created by Pope John Paul II; and 67 by Pope Benedict XVI).  To continue the parallel to the presidency, it is as if the Supreme Court, appointed mostly by the current president, were the sole electorate.

We hear this electoral process and are outraged that “we the people” do not have a say in the next leader of the Church. Acceptance of this process requires humility, a quality that is at best difficult for most of us to grasp and which is so beautifully modeled by Pope Benedict XVI in his decision to resign from the papacy.  But the duties of the Pope and the President differ dramatically in scope. The President is a public servant—he or she is charged with representing the needs of the people, providing security, so that all who live here may pursue life, liberty, and happiness. The Pope, too, is a servant, and  is the guardian of the universal Catholic Church, and must represent equally the needs of all of her members.  The Pope must steer a 2,000 year old institution through an ever changing world.

What many people simply do not understand is that a Pope, by the very nature of his office, can only do so much. The Catholic Church is steeped in a rich Tradition—a deposit of faith that contains truths passed down from Jesus Christ himself. Having a “conservative” Pope or a “liberal” Pope belies our ignorance…the papacy is not a presidency. We cannot describe the Pope as a liberal Catholic or a conservative Catholic. There is no such thing—a Catholic is a Catholic. A Pope cannot easily enact sweeping reforms as a President can.  The Pope must work within the confines of Tradition…seeking to elucidate teachings of Jesus in a world that is hostile to any mention of God.  People have criticized the Pope for not changing the Church’s stance on hot button issues such as women in the priesthood, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality—without realizing that the Pope does not have the authority to alter Church doctrine.  These teachings are immutable, are founded in Sacred Tradition and Divine Revelation, and by their very nature cannot be changed by a Pope.  Other issues—such as whether or not priests can marry, and the question of priestly celibacy—are church disciplines, which are not immutable, and therefore can potentially be changed if a Pontiff is so inspired.  Encourage a dialogue of respect and create an atmosphere of loving warmth where all are welcome? Create a culture of learning to help the faithful truly understand the Church’s moral teachings? Yes, a Pope can do that.  Alter doctrine? Not within the Pope’s office of power.

The argument should not be that the Pope was too conservative and therefore did not respond to the needs of the Church. The Church, as a thousands year old institution, must proceed with caution. Christ himself put these teachings in place because he knew that the Church is human. Christ knew that times would change and people would want the Church to change right along with it. We have the evidence of these changing times right before us. People speak of the Catholic Church’s oppression of women, when truly, the Church fights for the equality and dignity of women.  Anyone who has ever read Pope John Paul II’s letter to women can see that clearly. But such positive teachings of the Church rarely get traction.  Vatican

So rather than focus on Pope Benedict’s alleged failures, let’s hope and pray that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Catholic Church through times of both light and darkness.

Ashes

Once while I was a student at Boston College, I attended Ash Wednesday noon Mass at St. Mary’s Chapel. During my time at BC, the Wednesday noon Mass was a special one—we would be graced with an awesome homily by none other than Fr. Michael Himes, beloved among nearly all BC students. With a perfect blend of wit and profundity, Fr. Himes would have you laughing and pondering the meaning of your life in a five minute homily!

A few years ago on Ash Wednesday, he began his homily by explaining that Ash Wednesday is the perfect example of how we as human beings get everything wrong.  In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus tell his followers:

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

But, as Fr. Himes pointed out, on Ash Wednesday, we go to Mass, receive a very obvious sign of ashes on our foreheads, and march around for the rest of the day showing people that we are Catholic! We are not, in any way, “praying in secret.” What are we thinking?

Yet we know that these ashes are an outward sign of our repentance, our humility, and our brokenness.  It is an outward sign of an inward desire to be more Christ-like. It is the perfect way to begin this season of Lent, to question what changes we need to make in our lives to grow closer to God.  And perhaps the outward sign of ashes may prompt others to think about their own lives, their own spirituality, their own brokenness.

What are your Lenten plans? How will you try to grow closer to God during this season of repentance?

Bob Rice

Catholic speaker, musician, author, teacher

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