Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Most Trying Aloneness

     One can feel more alone in a crowd than when physically isolated. The phenomenon arises from the awareness that none of those around you know or care about you. It’s more common among city-dwellers than those who live in less dense regions, but just about anyone can happen upon an occasion to experience it.

     That state of aloneness can arise when one is surrounded by other Catholics at Mass, should the celebrant or a deacon spout obvious falsehoods from the pulpit. I had that experience this very morning.

     The deacon at issue, a man of many years’ service to my parish, was “interpreting” Saint Paul’s epistle to the Romans:

     For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

     Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. [Romans 1:18-25]

     From this, our deacon proceeded to exhort us to “crucify all self desires,” each and every day. Those were his exact words.

     Excuse me? Are we, then, forbidden to want anything for ourselves? Are the many pleasures and satisfactions of temporal life merely temptations, placed before us to test our souls? Is God’s Creation merely an expanded version of the tortures of Tantalus, he who stole ambrosia and nectar from Olympus that mortals might know the secrets of the gods? If so, what becomes of God Who is loving, just, and merciful? What becomes of Man’s free will and our ability to learn and flourish? Is everything either compulsory or forbidden, as in a Communist “utopia?”

     Those were my immediate reactions. I looked around my fellow lay Catholics for any indication that I was not alone in thinking thus. I saw nothing to reassure me.

     The celebrant had to have known what the deacon was about to say. By implication, he found it unobjectionable. I left the chapel in a state of deep confusion.

     Now that it’s possible, I try to attend Mass every weekday. I seek to draw strength from it for the day ahead. The Eucharist is a reminder of how greatly God loves His people. After all, one doesn’t sacrifice one’s only son lightly, as Abraham would tell you. Moreover, the miracle of Transubstantiation is the greatest of God’s gifts to living mortals, for at each occurrence it reconnects us with His Son and the Passion He freely accepted in remission of the sins of men.

     And then I hear crap like the above from the pulpit.

     Fellow Catholics, I remind you, now and forever, to let your conscience be your guide. The Ten Commandments are explicit; moreover, they are organically derived from the Two Great Commandments:

     Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:34-40]


     At no time did Jesus ever condemn the enjoyment of the fruits of the Earth or of our honest labors in our own interest. Moreover, He twice reminded us that God the Father said just the same thing:

     As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Matthew 9:10-13]
     At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on a Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick the grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is against the law to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry— how he entered the house of God and they ate the sacred bread, which was against the law for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that the priests in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are not guilty? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” [Matthew 12:1-8]

     and Fortitude.

     These are the virtues. Asceticism is nowhere mentioned among them. Therefore, be free of the dictates of those who would chastise you for enjoying your temporal life, so long as it offends neither the Commandments nor the seven virtues above.

     I hope that will leave you feeling a bit less alone.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

An Unexpected Intercession

     The following is a true story of an event that took place in Nassau County, NY. It's been well documented and verified.

     He was driving along a secondary road, on a rainy night, on his way to an appointment with his doctor. It was possible that it would be his last such appointment, for the most recent X-rays had revealed that his cancer was speeding through his body. The doctor had already told him that he had little time left, perhaps only a few days. It caused him to wonder, given that nothing could be done for a cancer so aggressive and so thoroughly metastasized, why he should continue to see a physician. Yet he went.

     His headlights lit upon an elderly man in priestly garb, walking along the side of the road. As was his habit, he stopped.

     “Father,” he said to the priest, “may I give you a lift?”

     The old priest nodded. “Please, take me to Maria Regina Church in Seaford.”

     When they were again on their way, the driver, to his own surprise, confided in the priest that he had cancer, and that it was about to take his life. “I hope you’ll pray for me, Father,” he said. “It’s all anyone can do for me now.”

     The priest shook his head. “No.” He laid a hand on the driver’s shoulder. “You’re going to be all right. You’ll see.” They arrived at the church shortly thereafter. The priest thanked the driver for his kindness and debarked, whereupon the driver continued on to his doctor’s appointment.

     The doctor was astounded at what new X-rays showed of his patient.

     “I can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s gone. The cancer’s gone!”

     The patient was dumbfounded. “Really? Completely?”

     The physician nodded. “I can’t find the smallest trace of it. I can’t explain it, but you’re cancer free. Congratulations!”

     The patient thought immediately of the old priest. How did he know?

     About a year later, the man was in a local pizzeria when another patron handed him a prayer card. The card bore a photo of the saint whose intercession was sought. The man was staggered, for the picture was of the old priest he’d picked up that night in the rain.

     The face on prayer card was that of Padre Pio. The man noted the date of his death. The old priest had died long before their encounter in the rain.

     It proved to be one of the miracles for which Padre Pio was canonized as Saint Pius of Pietrelcina, who today is greatly beloved by the Catholics of Nassau County, New York.

     May God bless and keep you all.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Your Parish Family

     The sense of isolation can be difficult to bear. Not many persons are happy when alone for long periods. When the sense of isolation arises from being the lone Catholic in a group, whether familial, occupational, social, or any other variety, it can be particularly painful.

     One resource against that sense that we could use more frequently and effectively is the parish pastor. He’s almost always in frequent contact with the parish’s most active lay members. He’s usually happy to put another parishioner in contact with them – yes, even if there’s no prospect of getting free labor out of it – because after preaching the Gospels, keeping the parish together is his primary aim.

     A parish’s lay leaders are likely to be sociable folks, naturally gregarious and well connected to what other Catholics in the region are doing. Getting acquainted with them can lead to a wealth of other acquaintances, and a deeper involvement in parish life.

     I find this to be especially valuable to persons who have been divided from their natural families by death or distance, or estranged from them by discord. Imagine the unique suffering of being utterly alone at Christmas or Easter, the two great feast days of our faith. Imagine how much healing balm a hand extended in friendship and shared belief could spread over such sorrow. It’s among the simplest and most straightforward works of mercy imaginable. Parish leaders will be inclined to offer such a hand automatically.

     When that feeling of isolation begins to creep over you, call your parish office and ask for an appointment with the pastor. When you sit down with him, don’t tell him that you don’t want to be alone. Tell him that you’d like to be better connected to parish life generally, that you might get a sense for how your personal gifts might be put to the service of others. After all, you would like that feeling of involvement, wouldn’t you?

     Just a quick thought from a Catholic who has spent far too many Advents, Lents, and holy days alone. If we’re all truly members of the Mystical Body of Christ, there’s no harm in striking up an acquaintance with a few of the other organs of that Body, now is there?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Thing That Would Not Die!

     Those who know me well are aware that I have an...odd sense of humor. However, even the most cynical among you might not have anticipated its most recent manifestation.

     I was at morning Mass just a little while ago, listening to Father Charlie sermonize about the Parable of the Good Fish, when I heard him commit a blasphemy. What? Yes, a Catholic priest, my very own pastor, spoke scandalously, right from the pulpit! Well, I knew I had to say something about that. So I approached him after Mass, wearing my most solemn expression.

     With one look at me Father Charlie knew at once that the subject was grim. “What is it, Fran?”

     “Father,” I intoned, “as a priest you’re aware that to violate one of the really serious Commandments imperils one’s immortal soul. Thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not serve red wine with fish or wear white after Labor Day –” that got a start out of him – “yet what did I hear this very morning, from your own lips!”

     His eyes widened as I paused for effect.

     “ ‘Someone has gone out of their way to help you’ –? Really, Father?”

     When he’d ceased laughing – it took a while – I grinned and said “I edit as well as write, you know.”

     Yes, friends, Pronoun Trouble afflicts even the Catholic clergy. Watch for signs of it in your parish. Remember always: Eternal vigilance is the price of gender!

     (Bruce Jenner’s notions notwithstanding.)


     As if the Sturm Und Drang over ever more strident, ever more demanding homosexuality weren’t enough, the relatively new phenomenon of transgenderism has gone public, with 1976 Olympic gold medal decathlon winner Bruce Jenner for its poster boy/girl.

     Trust me on this, fellow Catholics: you’re going to get asked about it. You’re going to be treated as if your personal reaction will be the reaction of Catholics everywhere – indeed, as if whatever you say is Church doctrine on the whole miserable subject. And no matter what you might say, your interrogators will be merciless in demanding justifications, rationalizations that conform to Church doctrine on homosexuality, arguments about what “Natural Law” means when “everything that occurs in Nature is natural,” and so forth.

     I asked my parish pastor if he knows Church doctrine on this subject, and he allowed that he doesn’t. Indeed, the phenomenon is new enough that the Holy See might not have addressed it yet. If it hasn’t, I have little doubt that it will do so quite soon.

     My opinion, though definite, doesn’t matter. (It’s more or less what you might expect.) Unless you’re a cardinal, and moreover one on the committee tasked with the elaboration of Catholic teaching, neither does yours. But it would be well to remember that you don’t have to submit to interrogation, on this subject or any other. In that regard, it’s well to remember that the most effective response to a hostile question is a question, as sharp as the one posed to you if not sharper. An example:

     Interrogator: So, I’ll bet you papist types are all agog over Caitlyn Jenner. Has the pope condemned him to Hell yet?
     Catholic: I didn’t know Jenner is Catholic. Did he consult his pastor about his intentions before he set out on them? Or don’t you know? Or are you just being obnoxious?

     (The above response should be delivered in a soft tone, and through a gentle smile. Be sure not to omit the smile. It unnerves them.)

     If the Church should express a doctrine on transgenderism, it would be well to know it, but it will never be your responsibility to defend it to those who have rejected it. A faith is a freely chosen allegiance. Yours and mine is no exception. Moreover, we have been cautioned against judging others for declining it by the Founder Himself.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

To See And Yet To Disbelieve

     Gather round, Gentle Readers, for I have a story to tell. It’s about youth, and age, and an unusual collision between them. It’s about rebellion of the most pitiable sort: rebellion against one’s own potentialities and virtues. And it’s about things that were, and are, not of this world, yet were clearly seen...and were rejected by him who saw them.

     It’s about a man, but ultimately, it’s about fallen Man.

     He was young, and old. He had known both hardship and comfort, in approximately equal amounts. He knew a great many things, but practically nothing about himself. If he had a mission, it wasn’t the one he imagined.

     He was noted by one and all for his seriousness, his intensity, and his concentration on faith and the things of the spirit. Such matters were never far from his thoughts. He kept them close even as he studied the most mundane of subjects. Throughout his youth they undergirded his world and lit it from within. He was often derided as a “junior mystic.” He took no notice of it.

     It was his habit to speak seriously. Though he had not yet passed his twenty-first summer, he conversed with peasants and philosophers, commoners and kings, with equal ease. Despite his seeming youth, his elders never dismissed him or took him for granted.

     He trusted his reason and the evidence of his senses. Let’s give him that much, though his trust in those things lapsed when it ought to have been at its peak.

     The first cusp of his life came at a party. He was deep in conversation with a somewhat older woman. The talk had covered several subjects, and he spoke seriously about them all. As the hours passed, others gathered around them, though none of them spoke. Evening had given way to night, and a brief lapse in their exchange had come, when the conversation took an unexpected turn. “I’ve been studying palmistry,” she said, though their chat had not come near to any such topic. “May I take a palm print from you to study later?”

     He thought about it for a moment, could find no harm in it, and assented. As one of their hosts went to fetch an ink cartridge, she reached for his right hand. He turned it palm upward to her, and she gasped.

     She stared wide-eyed at his palm for several seconds, in complete silence. “You must be about two thousand years old,” she said at last. “I can see that you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.” She released his hand and silently retracted her request for a palm print. The party broke up shortly thereafter.

     The incident shook him to the core. Somehow she had seen deeply into him – far more deeply than he had ever permitted anyone, even his parents, to look. Others had twitted him about his perpetual seriousness, how he treated his life as if it were a problem to be solved when his coevals treated theirs as a frolic in the sun. The advice he’d heard most frequently, from persons young and old, was to “loosen up.” He had always dismissed such prescriptions, but he hadn’t forgotten them.

     Only one person, his parish pastor, had spoken to any other effect. But he’d allowed a distance to form between them that dimmed the luminance of his pastor’s counsel, all the way to invisibility.

     In the firestorm her remark had ignited within his skull, he drew the wrong lesson.

     It was only much later, after two decades of heedless self-indulgence and reckless adventurism that had nearly cost him his life twice before, that he recalled that evening and her words. It may have helped that he was far from home, and that recent developments and encounters had shaken him as deeply as that earlier conversation had done.

     She was right. I knew it at the time. I turned away from it even so.

     He strained to find the reason for it.

     Was it a form of delayed-action peer pressure? Or sudden revulsion at the idea of a life focused on studying, learning, and pondering? Or was it just a suppressed adolescent rebellion that had finally built up enough steam to force itself forward at last?

     He could not know. The young/old man he’d been was as alien to him as he’d been to himself at that time. Perhaps too much time had passed. Perhaps he’d seen too much, had been wounded too many times. It didn’t matter. A second cusp, more pronounced than the first, was upon him.

     I knew better even then. I knew better, but I did worse. The very epitome of folly. But what now?

     The years he’d squandered could not be regained. All he could do was mourn them. Yet he knew he’d had an epiphany. Though the habits of the twenty years behind him inclined him to dismiss it, his reason remained intact. He resolved that this time, he would believe what he saw all too plainly.

     He embarked upon a project few men ever dare to undertake: the complete reconstruction of his life. He knew how it must begin: the component he’d first sloughed must be the one first restored.

     He returned to faith in God.

     We are frequently told to maintain a healthful skepticism, even about what we see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, and reason out with our own minds. It occurs to few persons that the popularity of such primary-color cynicism isn’t a perfect justification for it. Why not trust the evidence of our senses? Why not believe that the world is as it appears? Why not entertain, if only for a moment, the possibility that he who tells you not to trust your own eyes, ears, and reason might not be your friend – that he might have motives of which he dares not speak?

     Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was quite explicit about it:

     Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it – no matter if I have said it! – except it agree with your own reason and your own common sense.

     That applies just as strongly to epiphanies – private, internal experiences – as to external ones that others could share. For we have senses that go beyond the conventionally enumerated five: the kinesthetic senses of our bodies, the probabilistic, inferential, and inductive senses of our minds, and the moral sense that emanates from our souls. These are no more to be disregarded than the reports of our eyes and ears.

     I’m inclined to think that epiphany is more common than most of us imagine, which might be a part of the reason many persons dismiss theirs. Internal experiences are difficult to discuss with others. Many persons are embarrassed to mention them. The secularity and overall cynicism of our era makes it harder still. An industry has emerged that’s powerfully biased against accepting them; its practitioners charge hundreds of dollars per fifty-minute “hour,” which inclines their clients to privilege their opinions above others.

     A few persons who’ve had epiphanies have told me about them. Most of them pledged to accept their internal revelations and to act accordingly. They’ve all benefited thereby. Most of those who’ve dismissed them are still on the sunny side of the sod, so who can say what might arise to change their minds?

     Sometimes what changes a mind is the sudden, event-triggered perception of wasted years, as was the case for the subject of the brief tale above. I almost succumbed to the impulse to call such an interval “years spent wandering in the wilderness,” but realized that that kind of wandering almost always has a cleansing, healing effect. Provided you don’t starve or get mauled by a grizzly bear, of course.

     To sum up:
     Trust your internal senses.
     Trust your facility of reason and what it tells you.
     Be prudent, but don’t be paralyzed; you are more than even you can know.
     Remember how much of your “knowledge” is really confidence derived from past experiences: in other words, faith.

     May God bless and keep you all.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Heated Irons

     You’ve been thinking maybe the time has come to speak. After all, if the Planned Parenthood scandal won’t open people’s eyes, they can’t be opened, right? Right?

     Beware. Sometimes, the best thing to do when an opportunity such as this arises is nothing at all. This is such a time.

     Be yourself. No, really.

     I know, I know: plenty of sententious phonies have told us to “Be yourselves.” What they meant by it, I can’t imagine. What I mean by it is somewhat simpler: Be untroubled. You have no part in this obscenity. As a Catholic, you’ve been opposed to the root of the thing, the genesis of all that’s followed, from the very first. Your conscience, therefore, should be clear.

     If you can simply maintain your convictions and an appearance of serenity, you’ll influence far more minds than could any amount of verbal preachment. Open sadness at this development? No, not even that. This was easily predictable from the beginning of the abortion-on-demand regime. Of course if you’re asked for your opinion, you should give it, but in a humble and restrained manner. Perhaps you might say “Some people saw this coming long ago” – but no more than that. Avoid told-you-sos or anything else that would reek of an attitude of moral superiority. You, too, have sinned; we all have.

     It’s much easier on the conscience of a sinner to know that others who have avoided his particular sin will accept him anyway. Not the sin, but the sinner. Those who have supported abortion on demand, whether verbally, electorally, or by partaking of the practice, will find it easier to repent if we refrain from catechizing them.

     Say nothing. Approach no one. Let them come to you. They’ll know where to find you.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Your Mission...

     ...should you choose to accept, wait, wrong TV show.

     If you’re a lone Catholic, or one of a tiny minority of Catholics / Christians, in your family / job / neighborhood, you are a de facto missionary. Mind you, the position is unsalaried, comes with no perquisites, and is likely to be fraught with danger (to your self-regard, at least). But take heart: there are no quotas, no job description, no performance reviews, and the single-layer Management is as well-disposed toward you as you could imagine. Also, you get to set your own hours.

     Wait: that last bit is a little off-center. In point of fact, you’re pretty much on the clock twenty-four hours per day. But as all you’re required to do is to be a Catholic, the duties shouldn’t exhaust you.

     There’s a lot of loose talk about how American adolescents are under terrible “peer pressure” to conform to the latest trends, adopt the latest fads, and express the au courant opinions. Why the “peer pressure” on a teen should be so terrible, I can’t fathom. After all, isn’t he a peer? Can’t he press back? Yes, I do know that my readers are almost entirely adults, and I am consciously writing for that sort of audience, but even so, it’s worth considering your isolation, whether it’s relative or absolute, from the same standpoint: opportunity as well as discomfort.

     Like as not you’ve never thought of yourself as a missionary. In this regard, the Mormons have an edge over us, as they require their allegiants to do missionary work. (I think the same is true for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though I can’t confirm it.) Christians of the more conventional sects aren’t taught to think in such terms. Nevertheless, it’s the case: your contacts with non-Christians are opportunities to exemplify your faith: its beauties, its benefits, and its promise.

     I’ve received wake-up calls about this from several sources: persons who’ve written to tell me of how the examples set by sincere Christians who live their faith – they don’t find it necessary to preach the Gospels by “using words” – have influenced them toward the embrace of faith and other significant adjustments to their lives. Saint Francis of Assisi must be proud of those evangelists-by-example; I certainly am.

     Pope Benedict XVI told us, quite explicitly, to be not afraid. To live in fear is to be perpetually miserable. It’s especially tragic when what’s feared is the disapproval of others who hold to lower standards. Disapproval should flow in the other direction, shouldn’t it? No, you needn’t express it where others can hear. Indeed, you mustn’t.

     Try thinking of yourself not as an object of derision or a victim of ostracism, but as an example to others. Among other things, it will strengthen you in times of darkness and doubt. Isn’t it the case that we rise to the occasion with more determination when there are customers lined up and waiting?