Monthly Archives: February 2012

First Sunday of Lent

Readings at Mass
Genesis 9:8-15.
I Peter 3:18-22.
Mark 1:12-15.

The Kingdom of God comes at a great price. In the 9th chapter of Genesis, the flood has receded, and God tells Noah he will never again send a flood to devastate the whole earth. Now, after the chastening flood, God establishes a covenant with the remnant. Whether or not there were only eight human beings on the Ark is less important than the statement made in the story: a faithful relationship with God is offered to all but regrettably accepted by few.

That so many choose a life on Earth that leads to eternal destruction is demonstration of the power of Satan and the need for regular official periods of reflection and re-dedication. Lent is one such period in the Church’s annual cycle of seasons. The Gospel of Mark is noted for its brevity, so we are told only, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.” Other Gospel writers give us more details about the temptations, which we might summarize in today’s vernacular as an offer by Satan to give Jesus a really great life on Earth if he will acknowledge Satan as his lord. Riches, power, authority; these are the temptations Satan threw at Jesus. He also threw in the temptation that currently reigns in our world: skepticism. Satan tested Jesus saying, “You cannot really trust the Father, can you? If you could, you could jump off a high place and he would send his angels to save you.”

Faith is the triumph over skepticism. Throughout the world, we receive a cultural message that we should rely on ourselves, that we should take what we need. The American culture of rugged individualism is taken too far, and we have no understanding of the depths of our communal identity as mankind. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that it was through one man sin entered into the world, and it was through one man love conquered sin. Shortly after sin entered into the world, murder followed. Murder was quickly followed by denial of brotherhood. When Cain asked his question, he implied it was rhetorical: no, he is not his brother’s keeper. In truth, we are brothers, and we have a responsibility to them. Our first responsibility is to see them as brothers. Our second is to care for them as brothers.

A life of faith, as demonstrated by Noah, by Jesus, and by Peter, is a life of trials and temptations. Noah was tempted to abandon his project because it was completely at odds with the lived experience of his entire community. Sometimes our life of faith means we are walking in a direction different than everyone else. But we are not alone. Jesus was ministered to by the angels, and we will be cared for by them, too. So we are not left to our own devices, which is the message of the world. We are left to the remnant living the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth. If perhaps that group is not numerically dominant, it is the group that eventually triumphs.

When we watch a movie, we know the producers are not going to let the main actor die. We sort of know the outcome. In the climatic scenes in which he is in peril, we remain confident he will make it to the credits. Our earthly life is no movie, but we know the winning team, the one that will be victorious in the end. When we are dangling from life’s cliffs or careering through life’s traffic, we do not have to be terrified. The Kingdom of God is at hand. We can reach out to God and be helped by his angels. We can be his angels and reach out to our brothers. We can withstand temptation and remain in a covenant relationship with God.

An aspiring start

Responding to a homily preached in late 2009 by the diocese’s director of the Permanent Diaconate, I started the process that might lead to ordination in early 2017. As of February 2012, I am in what is called the year of aspirancy, a year of further discernment and confirmation of the decision last year by the archdiocesan formation team to accept my application and recommend to the archbishop that he accept me into the program.

The year, November 2010 to November 2011, I spent in Inquiry sessions and waiting for an answer to my application gave me time to do some other projects that will be harder as the workload increases should I and the formation team agree I should continue in the formation program. I took on these endeavors because they offered me settings replete with opportunities to practice Christian charity and compassion. As a man who constantly struggles with issues of pride, I need to work always on loving the people I am with even in a business setting where sometimes the ends justify the means. Of course, a good Christian cannot ever accept the idea that ends ever justify the means, but my compartmentalizing leads to times when efficiency dominates empathy. These times are always followed by regret. Going into these recent endeavors, I told myself the process was more important than the outcome, that these people were Christ’s children and much more valuable than my need to feel like the smartest man in the room.

I had mixed results in my efforts. Charity in a business setting is something I do not find natural. The competitive, materialistic nature of the business world lends itself to enabling the worst aspects of my type A personality. I am generous and kind until I sense there might be some kind of competition. Then I get defensive and argumentative. My tour of duty with one of these endeavors is at the halfway mark, and I have had halfway levels of success.

My year as a aspirant has started, and already I have been enriched by a loving God. We are twenty men from all walks of life and from all around the archdiocese. We have a full day of class work one Saturday each month, and our subjects range from Logic & Metaphysics to Spiritual Discernment. We will have classes on Sacred Scripture and we are getting a double helping of Catholic Social Teaching. I never took philosophy or logic in high school or college, so that class is both a lot of fun and a lot of work. Spiritual discernment doesn’t lend itself to much in the way of academic work, but the session was interesting and does cause one to think about things.

Since the class is so broad, the instructors appear to have assumed we have no prior exposure to their subjects. It turns out I have in my own way done some of the work they believe is important. Spiritual discernment turns out to involve a number of activities I am already doing. My writing in a journal is a good thing. My recent preparation of a talk for a parish renewal retreat was very close to the spiritual autobiography we are encouraged to develop. The study of sacred scripture assumes no prior knowledge, but I have spent years in scripture studies. The topic that loomed large prior to starting this year was Catholic Social Teaching because I knew the course would be based on the JustFaith syllabus, and I had studied up on the folks that authored JustFaith.

While I continue to find in the JustFaith materials evidence of association with Marxist radicals who pursue power by any means necessary in their quest for “social justice,” closer to Rousseau’s use of that term than St. Thomas Aquinas’ use, our teacher has not shaped his sessions around that. We are reading Compassion, by three priests of the 1960s and 1970s. Henri Nouwen is the most familiar author. After an inauspicious start in which we turn to an aging Senator from Minnesota as an authoritative voice from which to hear the definition of compassion, the authors turn to the Bible. In the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, they find something deeper than the Senator’s pencil eraser. Unlike the Senator, Jesus is not interested in earthly power. He is the ultimate power, and his power is part of his love for his children and his obedience to his Father’s will.

In my preliminary reading of the materials used in the JustFaith program, and in learning more about the primary authors of those materials, I know I will have to be careful to cull from a lot of leftist claptrap the authentic Catholic social teaching. It is sad that something so marvelous would be packaged in something so inappropriate to the subject matter.

To communicate what the Church teaches about the poor and the hurt and the sick and the old without use of Marxist class mentality or other Modern materialistic hermeneutics would indeed be something worthwhile. One could do a lot just with the Bible. Jesus certainly gives us many examples of how to behave toward the less fortunate. It seems we are to serve them. Nowhere does He mobilize them into action using the tactics of Saul Alinsky. Jesus was not a community organizer. Lenin was. Jesus was a servant and a good shepherd, not a revolutionary.
Jesus was — and is — Love. Love is compassion and generosity, so Love is at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Already the session leader is encouraging us to practice the activity of seeing Jesus in every human person, to be with that person regardless of his human condition. Whether that person is materially poor or spiritually poor, we can see them as God sees them and be with them as God is with them. In so doing, we can live authentic Christian lives.