Monday, May 14, 2012

"I no longer call you servants... I call you friends". (Reflections on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 15:9-17)

"Friends", not "slaves", not "servants". They are words that would’ve sounded greater for the disciples than to us today. The Greek word that the gospel uses is “doulos”, which means “slave” or “servant”. In the ancient world, to be called a “doulos” was not a title of shame, but a title of great honor. Moses was called God’s “doulos”. So was Joshua, David, and Saint Paul. The greatest men in the past were proud to be called “doulos”.

But what Jesus is saying is that that honorific title isn’t good enough for his disciples. “I do not wish to call you servants. I wish to call you friends”. Not “doulos”, says Jesus, not servants or slaves, that won’t work for the people who are dear to me. “I call you friends”, “philos”—is the Greek word, it means “beloved”.

In the ancient world, the so-called “friends of the court”, were individuals who at all times had access to the king. They even had the right to enter his bedchambers. The “friends of the king” were persons who had the closest and most intimate connection to him.

Jesus calls us to be his friends, and the friends of God. That is a tremendous offer. It means that no longer do we need to gaze longingly at God from afar; we are not like slaves who have no right to enter into the presence of the master unless called. We are not like a crowd whose only glimpse of someone important is when he passes us on some occasion.

By dying on the cross, by "laying down his life" for us, Christ gave us the greatest gift one could give—not only access, but intimacy with a God who is always there for us, welcoming us, forgiving us, consoling, comforting, and strengthening us, any time and any place, whenever we want it, whenever we need it.  The offer is there; we have only to take it.

This past Tuesday, as I took Bella, my English bulldog for her walk around the seminary chapel, I heard someone calling, “Father... father”. I stopped and looked around but didn’t really notice anyone, so I kept walking. Bella was only too happy to resume her afternoon constitutional. Suddenly, I noticed a young man, in his twenties, running towards us. He had just gotten out of his car and was still trying to park when he began calling me earlier. “Oh, I’m sorry”, I said. “I didn’t see you”.

“That’s alright, father”, he replied, and introduced himself. “I’ve been to five different churches and have been trying to find a priest who’s available to talk. This is my sixth attempt. This is a church, right?” I explained that we were in a seminary, and the building in front of us was the chapel. 

“Please, father; I just need someone to talk to. If you’re busy right now, I’m willing to come back, even later tonight”. He looked quite distraught, so while I had something going on as soon as I brought the dog back to my room, I asked him to return in two hours and I’d make myself available.

Two hours later, he was back, looking even more flustered than earlier, his eyes looking bloodshot, probably from crying. We talked for close to three hours; I sat there listening to his story, punctuated every now and then by sobs and silences. 

His was a typical story, one I’ve heard in confession or in counseling sessions many times before: a young man with very loving and supportive parents, but who had somehow lost his way in drugs, sex, and alcohol; and was now looking at possibly doing time.

And yet there two things in his narrative that struck me. First, he was once a very religious child he said, educated in a Catholic school, got good grades, loved praying the rosary with his parents, loved going to Mass with his two siblings, was an altar-server, and at one point, even thought, albeit not-too-seriously, about possibly becoming a priest.

“My family’s still very religious”, he said. “In fact, my mom was the one who begged me to look for a priest. She’s very religious. And she’s the one who’s been most hurt by the sad turn of events in my life. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to do this even if it embarrasses me so much. I don’t want to see my mom crying all the time. And I don’t want to loose her or my dad without being able to make them proud of me again”.

The first thing that came to mind when he was saying these things was Saint Augustine’s account in the Confessions, of his mother, Monica, who prayed and wept daily, for his conversion and who never gave up on the son that she so dearly loved.

Second, this young man who by now had completely broken down as he sat there in my office, said something that I believed to be an unmistakable sign of the subtle yet powerful stirrings of God’s grace. “I want to be able to pray again, father. But I just don’t know how anymore. I think I’ve forgotten. I don’t even remember how to say the Our Father completely”.

It was at that point, that I stopped him, and asked if he wanted us to say the Our Father together. He was holding his phone, so I asked him to look it up on the internet—which he did; and together we prayed. 

I tell you, it was perhaps one of the most meaningful, and yes, memorable, recitations of the Lord’s Prayer I’ve ever done, for as I sat there in front of this troubled young man, his voice quivering, tears rolling down his cheeks, I knew I was witnessing a profound manifestation of the grace of God welcoming back a child at his homecoming, Christ throwing his arms wide-open to embrace a long-lost friend, picking up where they had left off years ago, before his friend had lost his way, as if his friend had never gone. 

“I no longer call you servants... I call you friends”. 

What I was given to witness this past week, was a homecoming like no other. That night, I said a prayer of thanks for that young man, for the grace of his conversion, for the grace of his loving parents, especially his patient mother who never gave up on him, and I prayed that he may be set on a path towards a renewed relationship with Christ.

But I also said a prayer of thanks to God for having given me the opportunity, as a priest, to see with my own eyes, to hear with my own ears, and to feel with my own heart, the depth of Christ’s friendship, his forgiveness, and his love—one that “lays down its life for one’s friends”, one that never gives up on us, no matter how far or long we’ve strayed, and one that is willing to welcome us back, again and again, and again.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A distracted and scattered flock is a reflection of the spiritual state of its shepherd: Reform of the church begins with reform of the spiritual life of its priests.

A priest friend, a fellow university professor, sent me an email earlier, bewailing the fact that more and more Catholics he's encountering seem less and less knowledgeable about their religion, less inclined to participate fully in the life of the Church, less interested in faith as a whole. And he blamed the usual boogeymen we love to blame: secularism, relativism, subjectivism, the permissiveness of society and culture in general, and so on. "The flock seems so distracted", he said, "scattered". 

But can we really blame them? Ask lay people and they'll tell you, they rarely feel "fed". They leave our Masses and liturgies "hungry". They listen to our homilies and feel "empty". And it's not just their minds that are starving; its their hearts and their souls. Why? We might be tempted to give a well-crafted and thoroughly researched response. I think the answer's quite simple, and has been staring us in the face for a long time now.

Frankly, we Catholic priests should be asking ourselves a serious question, How many of us actually, honestly, and earnestly spend an hour a day in personal prayer, spiritual reading and meditation? How many of us actually faithfully pray our Breviary - something we promised to do at Ordination, diligently read the Scriptures, pray the Rosary, spend time with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament? 

Or have we become so jaded and cynical that we've learned to "theologize" even our excuses? Shall we now think naive, maybe even impractical for such busy men, the suggestion that we once again take up what we did faithfully as seminarians, what we were taught a true disciple of Christ will need to do for the rest of his life? A priest who has lost touch with the spiritual life might as well have lost his soul.

The rallying cry of the reforming fathers of the Council of Trent remains true to this day:
"Reform of the Church begins with reform of the clergy". We keep talking about how our lay people no longer have a profoundly personal relationship with Christ; but honestly, how many of us priests do? 

It's something we don't like to talk about; yet until bishops, and priests themselves, begin addressing the profound spiritual lacunae in the lives of all of us, there is no way we'll begin "attracting" people, no matter how many New Evangelization programs we begin. We'll only be shouting ourselves hoarse.

The problem is not simply a lack of religious knowledge or even commitment on the part of Christ's flock; the problem is often the profound lack of spirituality on the part of the shepherds themselves, a spirituality which ought to be at the heart of a religion that will attract and bring people to God, and keep them tethered to Him.

I had a conversation with a very good student just recently. He mentioned how a friend of his told him he didn't feel interested in "organized" or "institutional" religion anymore, that he felt he was - like many today - "spiritual and not religious". "Are they wrong, father?" he asked. 

Wasn't there a young man who recently posted that video of himself talking about how Jesus "hated religion"? The uproar from religious individuals was understandable; but it was largely misplaced. Those of us who are religious, often mistake such ideas as an affront to, even an attack on religion. Well, maybe it isn't. Perhaps it's a plea, and one we should be listening to, attentively. 

For at its heart is not merely a criticism of religion; it's a plea to us, we who so identify ourselves as religious, and yet are the very ones who too often  lose sight of what true religion is about: a binding of our interior life to God who judges the heart. It's a plea to us, those called "shepherds", to remember that what the flock hungers and thirsts for is substance, spirit, that which lies intimeor intimo meo (to borrow Augustine's words), that which is "more intimate to me than my most intimate thought" - not externals that may feed the senses but starve the soul.

Noli foras ire. In te redi; in interiore homine habitat veritas. "Do not go outside yourself, " says Augustine. "Go within. Truth dwells in the inner man". It would be wise for us to remember the counsel of the wise bishop of Hippo. A religion that has forgotten its interiority and has gotten lost in the welter of external trappings, be it ritual, rule, or dogma, is no better than a religion of "whitewashed tombs". (Do we feel offended? So did the Scribes and Pharisees.)

It's not that people mistakenly create a gulf between "religion" and "spirituality", then dismiss the former and identify with the latter. It's that we who should know better have often squeezed the very spirit, out of true religion itself, dichotomized between the two, and think that religion is all about ideas. In fact, we often reduce faith itself to that - ideas, thoughts, concepts we hold and profess. In doing so, we are the ones who give religion a bad name, just as the Pharisees did. And didn't Jesus pronounce woe upon woe on them? That young man who posted that video had a point. He wasn't completely right; but neither was he totally wrong.

Faith isn't about what we know; faith is about what makes us leap into the unknown, in confidence, trust, and hope. Faith is what makes us fall in love. It is what feeds our soul. Knowledge alone will neither feed nor satisfy, no matter how profoundly erudite it is. Orthodox theology, vital as it may be, has never converted anyone; it's prayer that moves mountains, and it's the heart that has been led to fall in love with Christ that will remain faithful to his Church.

The Church today doesn't need philosophers and theologians; it needs saints. It doesn't need liturgists, canonists, dogmatists; what it needs are genuinely spiritual men. What it needs are priests that have "fallen in love" completely with Christ. Faith begins, not with the certainty of the mind, but with a tug on the heart. Augustine is right, unless the heart leads, the mind will not follow. And we priests aren't leading peoples' hearts, because our hearts, too often, are themselves unled.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)