The Apostolate of the Laity

Waxing philosophical in communion with one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

I am just a sinner who holds fast to the notion that every human being on the planet is the result of a thought of God.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Very Least of Our Brothers

Today Saddam Hussein was executed.

I have mixed feelings about this news. It is news that challenges my very core Catholic Christian beliefs. There is no debate that Hussein was an evil man. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people were killed by his regime. Two of my in-laws fought in Desert Storm when he invaded Kuwait. To this day, if I want to draw tears to my eyes, I need only remember that morning when I heard the news that we were bombing Baghdad, and that the war had begun. The stress, fear, and anxiety that family have when their loved ones are in battle is indescribable.

Praise be to God that both of my brothers-in-law returned home from war. Both were highly decorated for their distinguished service. One was permanantly disabled and now lives under the constant care of his family. To look at him in his wheelchair, unable to feed or dress or take care of his personal needs, and to know that he's there in large part because of the decisions by Saddam Hussein, makes me want to feel good about the image of Hussein dangling from the end of a rope.

At the same time, I feel a touch of sadness. I don't know how authentic Hussein's relationship with God really was. His true faith was known only to Our Lord; however, he did express a very Christian sentiment shortly after his death sentence was upheld. Quoting here from an Associated Press news article, Hussein said in a letter:

"I call on you not to hate because hate does not leave space for a person to be fair and it makes you blind and closes all doors of thinking. I also call on you not to hate the people of the other countries that attacked us. Remember that God has enabled you to become an example of love, forgiveness and brotherly coexistence."

Was Hussein simply trying to elevate his own image and salvage some good for his own legacy by offering such a message? Perhaps. It's hard to imagine a man who was so egocentric his entire life to suddenly begin espousing charity. On the other hand, what if, in the many months he spent alone in prison, he had his own conversion experience? Oh I know it's a long shot, and I would have more faith in the authenticity of his statement had he also given a message of repentance for the evil he did. Yet, maybe that was truly the best he could do.

Accounts of the execution reveal that he went to the gallows carrying the Qur'an. How fitting that one who spent most of his life serving himself would carry a something created completely by man. One question that I have is did anyone ever share the Gospel of Christ with him? Did anyone ever try? If we are truly all God's idea, then, if nothing else for us Christians, Saddam Hussein was the very least of our brothers. His poverty was one of spirt. His destitution was in his soul.

I hate the evil that Saddam created, and I celebrate the fact that Hussein can no longer hurt anyone, but a part of me mourns the potential loss of any soul, and still another part of me rejoices in the possibility that the divine of mercy of Christ is big enough even to save such an impoverished man if he simply repents and asks for His love and His mercy. Did he do that in the moment that Christ called to him as he was dying at the end of a rope? My prayer is that he did. The way that I can conquer to the evil of Saddam is with the love of Christ. The way that I can help this man who is the epitome of being the very least of my brothers is to pray for his conversion.

Can I look at my brother-in-law, bound in a wheelchair and imprisoned in a body that no longer functions and say, "I forgive Saddam?" That is the measure of my own conversion to Christ. And that is also a prayer for myself; that one day I might be able to do that. I'm not there yet... but I know I want to be.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Stairway to Heaven

This last Tuesday evening I went to the reconciliation service at St. Mathew's near where I live. Technically, this should be my home parish, but I have too many ties and I'm involved with so many ministries at St. Cecilia that it would be difficult to switch parishes. I deeply appreciate the deep reverence for the sacraments the priests at St. Mathews offer and how they encourage the congregation to do likewise.

Well over 300 people attended this service which consisted of praying the Liturgy of the Hours followed by nine priests and one bishop hearing individual confessions. The confessors were strategically positioned around the church to ensure privacy. I decided to go to a particular priest whom I knew from past experience to be a good confessor. Some folks define a good confessor as a priest that gives easy penance; however, I question if those people understand the beauty of this sacrament. For me, a good confessor is simply a priest who images Christ. Sitting down with this priest is as close as one can come to sitting down with Jesus and having a father son talk about where I went wrong and where I can do better.

The priest I wanted to see was stationed in choir loft and so one had to go up a flight of stairs to reach him. As the confessions began a line quickly formed down these stairs. I watched my fellow sinners in line. Some were a little nervous. Others read from prayer books. And still others gazed into the past and you could tell they were mentally preparing themselves for the sacrament. We were all waiting for healing not much unlike our brethren in Purgatory. The big difference being that the when the souls in Purgatory finally get into Heaven, they stay. Here, after encountering Christ in this healing sacrament, one had to go back down the stairs and face living in a sinful world full of the tempations that got one into trouble in the first place. Thanks Adam and Eve.

The line didn't move quickly. A good confessor takes his time with each soul he brings Christ to, and this priest takes that seriously. From the bottom of the stairs looking up I could only see a narrow portion of the ceiling of the Church; however as I neared the top of the stairs, slowly the crucifix that hangs over the alter came into view. There was our Lord, crucified, so I could have a chance at eternity.

A few steps more and a portion of the sanctuary was made visible. There was the alter and the tabernacle. Christ was present. One more step and I viewed the whole sactuary from the bird's eye view of the choir loft. The scene was moving. On each side of the alter was a confession station where a priest was hearing, counseling and absolving sinners. It was such a perfect picture that I wished I could have had a camera at that moment. I felt I had an angel's view from heaven, looking down upon the sancturary with the image of our crucified Lord over the alter, and those He came to save getting back into a state of grace with Him.

My own confession went well as I hoped it would. I won't go into detail other than to refer to the words of St. John in describing the roots of all sin:

"For all that is in the world the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life is not of the Father, but is of the world." (1 John 2:16).

Absolved from my sin, I walked down the stairs renewed and ready to face the world again; hoping that I could remain in this state of grace and thankful for this sacrament of forgiveness when I inevitably fall. Our lives are a stairway to heaven. Each step we take with love brings us closer to our ultimate destination, and sin is our walking down the stairs instead of up; however, Our Lord never closes the door to our salvation. His mercy and forgiveness keeps us moving always up to where the view is one of splendor, grace, and perfection.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Margin of Error

Oregon is God's country. I've traveled all over America and a little bit in Europe, and I've yet to find a place more beautiful. It's ironic that a place so definitively created by the Divine has the fewest believers in their creator. Portland is a hub of sorts for those with enlightened self interests. Old hippies who put on business suits but clung to their "me" generation call this neck of the woods home. That explains our culture of death. In the womb or nearing the tomb one's life is at risk with Oregon's liberal abortion laws and doctor assisted suicide.

It's been pensive around here for the last week or so as we have witnessed the physical prowess of The Almighty. We had a big wind storm blow through last Thursday that knocked out power to more than a million homes. Fortunately, our apartment only lost power for a few hours. Others are still waiting for the lights to come back on. In the midst of the bad weather, many have taken more than a passing interest in the fate of three mountain climbers who lost their way up on Mt. Hood more than a week ago. As mountains go, Mt. Hood is respectable and perhaps a little deceptive. Rising from the valley floor to a height of 11,249 feet it's just over a third of the size of Mt. Everest. In the winter many climbing enthusiasts use its slopes as a training ground to prepare for more formidable climbs.

While Hood is a smaller peak, it's still a mountain. It belongs to God. One doesn't conquer it. A simple mistep can lead to death in an instant. On any of the Cascade Mountains, one operates with little margin for error. The mountain doesn't forgive, nor does it care. It's a mountain. It has no feelings good or bad. It simply exists as a reminder of God's glory.

Yesterday, we learned the fate of one of the climbers. He died in a snow cave about 300 feet from Mt. Hood's peak. Early reports indicate he broke his arm, though death was likely from exposure to the sub-zero temperatures. I have empathy for this man. This last summer, I got my own lesson in how quickly one can get into trouble in God's playground when I slipped on a rock while fishing the Wilson River and broke a rib. There's a unique kind of fear being alone and hurt in the wilderness. My margin of error was a lot broader than the mountain climber's. While I was alone, the river where I fish is popular. Had I been disabled, eventually someone would have stumbled upon me. Also it was summer, so there was no risk of hypothermia. Still, I remember very vividly those first few moments of fear, and I can only imagine how much worse the hours, perhaps days of fear this man experienced, alone and dying with no hope of rescue. I pray that God gave him some kind of peace.

The news of these climbers' tragedy comes on the heels of the family that lost their way on a remote mountain road and got stuck in the snow just outside of Grants Pass. Mom kept the kids (7 months and 3 years old) alive by breast feeding them. Eventually she and the kids were saved. Dad set off for help, but made some bad choices and ended up dying of exposure. Both gave of themselves to save their little ones. The sacrifice of the cross. Still, it's been a tough winter.

It's easy to have one's faith tested in times like these. "Why?" That is the question family and friends will likely ask God over the holidays and beyond. None of these people deserved to die. There' s no easy answer to give someone at a time like this. I do believe God has a plan. Perhaps the death of these few will save many from making similar misteps in the future. Perhaps God was giving us a lesson in free will as none of these people had to take the risks they took.

I do know that God is love, even in these circumstances. It will be love that pulls the families through the rough days and years ahead. It will be love that brings them peace. And it is His love and mercy that gives us hope that these unfortunate souls now rest in His care for eternity.

Still, it's been a tough winter.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Through the Eyes of Zechari'ah

On Monday evenings I regularly attend a scripture encounter group meeting at Our Lady of Peace Retreat in Beaverton, Oregon. Our group has been meeting for the last five years. Consistently we get about ten people to show up, though there are probably twenty total that are part of the group. It started out as a scripture "study," but then we changed it to "scripture encounter;" the idea being that exploring God's word for us was going to be something we experienced versus studied.

As part of our journey with sacred scripture once a month we practice a technique called Lectio Divina. This is a way of praying scripture. The leader of our group, Sister Therese, has us gather in the chapel at the retreat house. If she can get permission, we begin with Benediction and exposition of the blessed sacrament. After a few moments of adoration we begin the reading keeping the sacrament exposed while we meditate and contemplate what God wants us to hear.

This last Monday we read the accounting of The Visitation to Elizabeth as recorded in Luke 1:39-46.

As I closed my eyes and replayed this scene in my mind, I found myself watching this whole exchange between Mary and Elizabeth through the eyes of Zechari'ah. I imagined he must have been in awe of the moment and at the same time frustrated by his inability to speak; having been silenced for his unbelief. He needed to be silent at this moment and just take in all that was unfolding before him. Is that not a lesson for all of us at various times in our lives? How often is our best course of action silence and contemplation versus filling the situation with our voices?

I opened my eyes and gazed upon the exposed sacrament and the beautiful life-sized crucifix that hangs above the alter, and continuing my looking at Christ through the eyes of Zechari'ah, I thought:

"I knew you before you were born and yet you saved me long after I died. You saved me."

It's doubtful Zechari'ah was even alive to see Christ's ministry. He was an older man at the time of His birth. Likely he greeted our Lord after the crucifixion when Christ descended to the dead.

The message for me from this encounter with scripture were the words of Zechari'ah, "you saved me." Now I haven't gone off the deep end here. I don't believe I was channeling ole Zechari'ah; however, I do believe the message the Lord wanted me to hear was that simple reminder that he saved me. This is beauty of lectio divina, and I can understand why Pope Benedict XVI is a strong advocate of its practice.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Immaculate Mary

Our Associate Pastor, Father Steve, gave a great homily regarding the Feast of The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception that we celebrate tomorrow. I actually went to the vigil mass this evening having been called to fill in for the scheduled lector who caught a case of laryngitis.

Father drew a nice analogy regarding the concept of original sin. He asked us to consider that every day in this country hundreds of babies are born addicted to drugs. By the same token, every day hundreds of babies are born in Africa afflicted with HIV. These are physical illnesses brought upon the innocent babies by the actions of their parents. In a like way, Adam and Eve, our parents, revolted against God, and our souls bear the illness of their actions. It's called original sin. We can be healed by this affliction through our baptism in Christ, and he reminded us that many souls die from orginal sin having never received the healing grace afforded in baptism. I was impressed as this was the first time I've heard a priest make reference to eternal damnation.

So having explained all that; he went into greater detail on how Mary, like Eve, was created free of this sickness of the soul that is original sin. They both shared in common the fact that they each had free will. The difference is that Mary said "yes," and Eve said "no."

The Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich gives a beautiful accounting of what the Immaculate Conception looked like. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she was an Augustinian nun who lived in the early 1800s and had very vivid private revelations from Christ regarding the every day lives of Mary and Christ. She was remarkable not only for her visions which are considered authentic by The Church, but also for her gift of the stigmata and her ability to understand the Latin mass the first time she ever heard it.

Emmerich describes the Immaculate Conception this way in her book, The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

"I had a vision of the creation of Mary's most holy soul and of its being united to her most pure body. In the glory by which the Most Holy Trinity is usually represented in my visions, I saw a movement like a great shining mountain, and yet also like a human figure; and I saw something rise out of the midst of this figure towards its mouth and go forth from it like a shining brightness. Then I saw this brightness standing separate before the Face of God, turning and shaping itself--or rather being shaped, for I saw that while this brightness took human form, yet it was by the Will of God that it received a form so unspeakably beautiful. I saw, too, that God showed the beauty of this soul to the angels, and that they had unspeakable joy in its beauty. I am unable to describe in words all that saw and understood."

This is the Mary that we Catholics know. Not the pouting teenager as portrayed in the latest Hollywood production The Nativity Story. Mary was full of grace from the moment of her creation to today and on into eternity. We must pray that our Protestant brethren one day come to understand her perfection and embrace her as our Queen of Heaven. She always points us to Christ.

This is a Holy Day of Obligation, or if you don't like the word "obligation" then call it a Holy Day of Opportunity. Nevertheless, you are required to go to mass today. Honor your Heavenly Mother, today, and join her Son, Our Lord, in the most Holy Eucharist. It is a far more bountiful thanksgiving meal than the one we celebrated just a couple of weeks ago.

Immaculate sorrowful heart of Mary...pray for us.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

No Room In the Inn

And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

The fact that there was no room for the Holy Family in the inn at Bethlahem on that first Christmas should make us take a step back from our harried holiday season and wonder. The birth of Christ was no surprise. God had planned for it from the beginning of eternity. How could there be no room in the inn?

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el. (Is 7:14)

Many centuries before the birth of Christ, the prophets announce his birth to a virgin. They even told us the place where it would happen.

But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah,
who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

So what happened? Did God forget the one little detail of accomodations? This event was no secret. How is it possible that there was no room, when the child born on that Christmas owns the inn, and Bethlehem, and the world, and every bit of room inthe entire universe?

Of course, God did all of this on purpose. There was no room in the inn because it shows that the world has rejected God. The world makes no room for its creator. There was no room in the inn because God wanted to show us that His Son comes as a Savior, to redeem a world that is largely in opposition to God. Being turned out at the inn foreshadows the fact that the Savior himself was to be rejected, despised, and even crucified. And all of this was part of God's plan from the beginning.

Today, that lack of room in the inn at Bethlehem is a stark reminder of the clutter in our own hearts. We fill our lives with everything except God. Before long, He has no room to reside in our souls. How often do we wish people "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas?" We'll give secular relativism and political correctness a place in our lives, but Christ, the very reason for the season, gets set outside.

We crowd out the least of our brothers and sisters, the very people whom Christ aligns himself with most closely. The dregs of our materialistic culture have no place in our lives. They are the homeless; the mentally ill; the forgotten elderly we warehouse in nursing homes; the unborn we allow to be killed so we may live as we wish. Christ is with them, but we have no room in the inn. Our schedules are far too busy to accomodate them. "Move them along. Someone else will take care of them." We have far too much shopping, work, and all the other anxieties of daily living to make room for them.

Despite all of that God loves us so much that He sent Christ to change all of that; to give us the means to covert our hearts to make room for Him. All He asks is that we welcome Him into our lives and our hearts. And that means we welcome everyone; the most defenseless; the most forgotten; the very least of our brothers.

This advent, let us consider all of those who need a room in the inn, and if we are unable to help them with physical means, at the very least, let us offer them up in our prayers. In the words of humorist Tom Bodett as he pitches Motel 6, let all of God's children be able to look upon us with great confidence and know that "we'll leave the light on for you."

(Inspired by a homily given by Father Frank Pavone)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Taking Christ to the Muslims

Turkey is a country slightly larger than the state of Texas. Of its 70+ million people, 99.8% are Muslim, mostly from the Sunni sect. That leaves just about 300,000 Christians, and those are mostly of the Orthodox rite. So when Pope Benedict XVI decided to travel to the land where Mary spent her last days before being assumed into Heaven; he went there knowing that he was not going to be preaching to the chior. In point of fact, before his visit, there was a very clear and present danger to his very life from radical Islamic extremeists who had vowed to kill him.

Praise be to God that those threats proved idle. From all accounts, the Turkish government beefed up security, and the protests that were feared seemed to never materialize. In a way it reminded me of the apostles in their boat being tossed about on the sea, and fearing for their lives woke up a sleeping Christ who rebuked them and calmed the storm. There was real fear among the faithful before our Holy Father's trip to Turkey; however, the Holy Spirit, our great defender of the Church, seemed to calm the storm of hate against the Pope. His pilgrimage was a success.

What a tremendous example of wearing Christ Pope Benedict put forward. How does one combat so much hatred? With love. How does one reach a people raised in a religion that empowers its most faithful to use violence as an end to justify the means. With love. I've heard a few grumblings from some of the faithful who were uneasy about Benedict turning towards Mecca in meditation while in the Blue Mosque alongside a Mulism Prelate. But would Christ turn His back on the very people that needed the Gospel? Many doubts in the Muslim mind about Catholics were likely dispelled by his gestures of respect and humility. Would you really expect anything less from the man who wrote Deus Caritas Est?

Will these feelings of good will last? If history is an indicator, the answer is probably not; however, we can continue to pray and take hope in the fact that Our Lady is working on our behalf for the conversion of Muslims. There is a fascinating link between Islam, Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe. To learn more, follow this link to an intersting article about this.

Keep praying for the intentions of our Pope, and as we enter into Advent, perhaps part of our anticipation can include our prayers for a narrowing of the gap between all those who worship God; so that we can all be the united in full communion in this Christ mystery.