His message is love

There was a time in my life when I couldn’t relate to Good Friday.  I just did not understand how it fit in with the rest of the events of Holy Week.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and is greeted by the people with much fanfare and celebration.  He is welcomed as the man who had healed the blind, cured the sick, helped the lame to walk.  Yet, mere days later, this same man is arrested on charges of blasphemy.  He is accused of speaking words of hate, when truly his message is love.  On Good Friday he is crucified, and though he is wrongly accused, he does not fight back.  He completely empties himself and dies for all of our sins.  He rises from the dead on Sunday, his glorious Resurrection conquers death.  It all turns out beautifully in the end.

Yet for the first time in my life I think I am finally starting to understand Good Friday, or at the very least, I am beginning to see it in a new light.

This week I have been struggling each and every day with my fear of speaking out.  I am a people pleaser.  I love to be loved, I love to be liked.  I don’t like confrontation, I don’t like to stir things up.  I would rather that people just think that I am really nice while I silently disagree with everything they are saying. I can’t for the life of me figure out when I started to be this way, but I can tell you that I haven’t always felt like this. But somewhere along the way, fear took over, and I am deeply afraid of sharing my true beliefs with others, even close friends.  But this Good Friday morning, as I meditate on my Lord and Savior dying on the cross for my sins and for the sins of the world, wrongly accused even though his message is love, I find courage and suddenly it is time to speak.

Today, my alma mater, Boston College, is under fire for disciplining students who are handing out condoms on campus.  People are outraged—how could a university punish students for promoting “safety” and “sexual health?”   In one article, an ACLU attorney, Sarah Wunsch, stated, “Boston College has the right to express its views and try to persuade students of the rightness of their opposition to contraception, but I don’t think they get to impose that view on what students in this case are doing.”

But Boston College is a Jesuit, CATHOLIC institution. The Church’s position on birth control is clear.  The Church’s teachings on contraception are, in a word, beautiful.  The Church teaches that sex is unitive and procreative, and the Church emphasizes that married couples are called to be co-creators with God.  We are given this gift to co-create with the Master Creator, if that is God’s will for us.  For this reason, the Church views contraception as immoral, because contraception is a conscious decision to leave the Creator out of the creating process.

To say that this message is unpopular is an understatement. But that doesn’t change what is objectively true, what is objectively right.  I understand that many people disagree with the Church’s teachings on contraception, and I understand why.  But a Catholic institution that is necessarily grounded in the beliefs of the Catholic Church can and must be true to that identity. I am proud that BC is standing up for her identity, even though it is an unpopular position.  I would expect nothing less from a Catholic university.

John 18: 19-23

“The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his doctrine.  

Jesus answered him, “I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing.Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said.”

When he had said this, one of the temple guards standing there struck Jesus and said, “Is this the way you answer the high priest?”

Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”

What’s in a name?

White smoke billowed out of the Sistine chapel chimney today and it is official…we have a pope!  My classroom was filled with cheers as the white smoke first wafted onscreen, and then impatient chatter as we all waited for the official pronouncement on this momentous day.  Such a profound historical moment.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, now Pope Francis, is the first Jesuit pope AND the first Latin American pope.  As a graduate of a Jesuit university, I have to admit that I was beaming with pride when I heard that the new pope is a Jesuit.  I was also intrigued by his name selection–did he choose Francis after St. Francis of Assisi (unusual for a Jesuit to pick a Franciscan name) or St. Francis Xavier (himself a Jesuit).  I have yet to find the correct answer, though most news outlets seem to think that St. Francis of Assisi is his namesake.  In any case, I think both saints have much to offer the new pontiff as he begins to steer the Church through these exciting times.

St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps most commonly known for being the patron saint of animals—who among us has not seen countless statues of St. Francis surrounded by animals, placed in gardens, churches, and front lawns?  But St. Francis is also known for his remarkable love for the poor.  St. Francis, born to a wealthy, noble family, forsook his wealth and lived a life of solidarity with the poor. Coincidentally (or not), one of the most frequent taglines on the news today is that Pope Francis is a simple, humble man—he lives in an apartment, cooks his own meals, and takes the bus to work each day. The example of St. Francis serves as a great reminder of Christ’s love for the poor, and that we as Church need to continue to care for the poor and to work for social change.  St. Francis gave up all worldly possessions to focus on his mission—to preach the Gospel and to lead others to Christ.  His humility and simplicity made him a compelling witness to the Catholic faith.

St. Francis Xavier was also born into a wealthy family.  He was a professor of philosophy and was well on his way to a career in academia when he met St. Ignatius of Loyola.  St. Francis Xavier became one of the first Jesuit priests and served as a missionary in Japan and India.  St. Ignatius of Loyola famously urged Francis as he set off on his mission, “Go forth and set the world aflame.”  I find this to be an exciting parallel–the first Jesuit pope selects the name of one of the first Jesuit priests, and in so doing reminds the church of her evangelizing mission.  Indeed, as a church we are called to evangelization, and in a world marred by sin and death, we so desperately need to evangelize.  We are called to spread the good news, the message of God’s love for us.

I am filled with hope for the future of the Catholic Church, and our inspiring new leader, Pope Francis. May he guide the Church with wisdom and grace, that we may truly “set the world aflame.”

Non habemus papam…yet!

Black smoke! The results from the first vote of conclave are in, and no pope yet.  The cardinals rarely elect a new pope on the first vote, so the results aren’t all that surprising.  Of course, AP news decided to run the tagline, “Roman Catholic cardinals failed to agree on a new pope during the first day of the papal conclave.”  Who knew that thoughtful discernment could be considered a failure?

I am so fascinated by the press these days. About a week before Pope Benedict’s resignation, I was writing articles about the perceived decline of Catholicism and morality in our world. Today, “Pope” is trending on twitter, “black smoke” is one of the most frequently searched words on Google, and photos of the Vatican are splashed on every newspaper and website.  Every major news outlet featured a live stream of the chimney at the Sistine Chapel, cameras poised to capture the first wisps of smoke wafting from the chapel.

Perhaps my favorite part of this whole experience is the “papal predictions.”  We—as human people— just love to control everything. For this reason we have lists of the “20 cardinals most likely to be Pope,” and we have commentators pre-recording footage about several papal contenders just in case one of them is elected pontiff.  Here in Boston, Fox News 25 (which just over a week ago featured one of its morning personalities cracking distasteful jokes about Cardinal Law) is now recruiting Boston Catholics to talk about their personal experiences with Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who is seen by the media as one of the potential frontrunners in the papal race.

I love the intrigue and speculation that surrounds conclave. But I hope and pray that we remember that the Holy Spirit has always guided the Church and will continue to, especially in this exciting time.  As Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera from Mexico reminds us, “It’s not journalists that vote in the conclave. It’s cardinals.” A part of me hopes that the new pope will be someone that no one expected—though admittedly, I have my favorite papabili—I think it would be a neat reminder that we don’t have it all figured out. Only time (and the color of the smoke!) will tell.

change our hearts

On my way home from work this evening I was listening to Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s radio program on Catholic Sirius XM radio, “Conversations with Cardinal Dolan,” and he shared something so profound that I couldn’t wait to get home to write about it!

Cardinal Dolan talked about how during papal elections, we see a frenzy of articles suggesting that great change will come with a new pontiff—perhaps the new pope will allow women to be priests, alter teachings on contraception, allow abortion in some instances, etc.  These articles suggest that many people don’t understand the way that the Church functions (He shared that one reporter asked him, “Do you think the new pope will change any doctrine?” to which he responded “To use doctrine and change in the same sentence is practically an oxymoron!”). 

The Pope’s job is to safeguard the deposit of faith, to preserve Church teachings for future generations.  In fact, in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses urges the Israelites to do the same thing.

“However, take care and be earnestly on your guard
not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen,
nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”

Passing on the faith is no small task, especially in a world that is rapidly changing.  The message of the Church is, at times, wildly unpopular because it presents a challenge and quite a radical message. Church teaching doesn’t always meet us where we are, or where we want to be, but rather it calls us to be more like God.

Cardinal Dolan continued, “Yes, the next Pope will call for change…change in our hearts, change in our souls.”  We are the ones that need to change, explained Cardinal Dolan, not the doctrine. The Church doesn’t need to change her teaching on abortion or contraception—we need to be a people who are open to life, in all stages, and with all of its challenges.  My prayer today is that we may all join in prayer not only for the cardinals as they gather in conclave, but also for the conversion of hearts—that God may open our minds and our hearts to more humbly accept God’s plan for us.

spring cleaning for the soul

How I wish it were spring. It is a dreary, cold, New England March day, and today I have made the official pronouncement: I am ready for spring.  Now, I adore New England winters. I love the cold days, the snow, the slightly ever-grey sky, the excuse to curl up with a good book and a mug of coffee. But inevitably at some point I start to pine for spring, and that time is now.

Since I can’t make spring weather appear, I decided to go to the next-best thing—spring cleaning! I found a great Spring Cleaning Challenge through Pinterest and decided to begin to ready our home for spring. I don’t know who came up with the idea of spring cleaning, but it is a brilliant concept—after a winter of being holed up in our apartment and baking almost every day, we are very much ready for a good spring cleaning.

Is Lent, perhaps, “spring cleaning for the soul?” We rush around the rest of the year, preparing for different milestones—both liturgical and non—4th of July picnics, the first day of school,  Halloween, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas. Each season has its challenges and highlights. But Lent is quiet. Lent is reflective. It is sacrificial. It’s a time when we “clean house,” but in a spiritual way. Wouldn’t it be neat to make a spiritual spring cleaning list?  To think of all of the things I need to get rid of—grudges, hurt, guilt, misunderstandings—and try to work through each one before Easter?

Now is the perfect time. This Sunday is Laetare Sunday—Laetare is Latin for “Rejoice!” and this Sunday we rejoice that we are getting close to Easter.  Laetare Sunday is about the half way mark between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, which makes it the perfect time to check in with myself about my Lenten journey.  Have I been keeping up with my additional prayers? Have I been sacrificing the little things that I promised I would?  I think that I may draft a list—a “soul cleaning” challenge—and pray that I can enter into the joyful Easter season with a clean heart, fully ready to embrace the wonder of Christ’s Resurrection. And of course, the warmer weather.

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?

Bob Rice

Catholic speaker, musician, author, teacher

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