27 January 2011

Preach for Life

Delivered at the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois
Sunday, January 23rd 2011

As many of you are aware, a number of us are tonight, having made the trip out to Washington to participate in the annual March for Life. It’s been several years since I myself made the march, and I have to admit, every anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, I’ve noticed a recurring heaviness of heart. This has led to a growing cynicism in myself over the efficacy of such demonstrations, and of the pro-life movement in general.

In my weaker moments, there’s an impulse to disgust over the futility of our work on behalf of the unborn, alongside all the political maneuvering from politicians, the electioneering, and most especially the slick and glossy rhetoric that’s used to distract us from one of the greatest human rights atrocities our country has ever known.

It’s true that there have been and continue to be advances, but we have very little reason to be complacent:

The steady decline in abortions since 1981 has leveled off in the last 5 years at just under 20 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age. That sounds like a pretty small number; but as you know, statistics don’t always capture the whole truth. For instance, the numbers are startling in more urban areas. Recently it was discovered that in NYC, 41% of all pregnancies except the ones that end in miscarriage end in abortion.  That statistic for the country as a whole stands around 22%.  That's right: 1 in 5 pregnancies in this country ends in abortion.  Take a guess at the most dangerous place to be in the United States right now. Not in an airplane, not in a speeding vehicle driven by an intoxicated college student, not on the South side of Chicago at 3 a.m.  No, the most dangerous place in our country is a mother's womb.

In more recent news, an abortionist in Philadelphia was arraigned and held without bail by a grand jury that charged him with eight counts of murder of babies born alive to unconscious mothers, as well as several women who died in his facility through gross medical incompetence. Even more shocking is the fact that the atrocities committed by this man against mostly poor, minority women and children were overlooked by the Pennsylvania Health Department for decades, who refused to inspect his facilities despite numerous well-substantiated complaints and the death of a patient under his care. The grand jury’s report found that the reason for such a horrendous situation was the Health Department’s refusal to inspect all Pennsylvania abortion clinics for, I quote, “political reasons” (p. 9).

It’s very easy to be disheartened by these stories of human depravity, this ability to commit unspeakable, heartless acts of cruelty for money and take a kind of sick delight in it all. It’s also very easy to be overwhelmed by the fact that in spite of a vibrant and popular pro-life movement, there are great numbers of people who think it a constitutional right to be able to kill children, to the order of 1.2 million abortions each year in the US.

And so there is great reason to grieve today. What rises out of today’s Gospel is a deep familiarity with Matthew’s reference to the people “dwelling in a land overshadowed by death.”

All this discouragement got me thinking about what it must have been like in the years leading up to the work of Dr Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. A few months ago, I was doing research for a paper on the history of nonviolent resistance and the lessons it might offer to the contemporary pro-life struggle, and I was just captivated by the history of the Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins in Birmingham. In the years leading up to those inspired and noble attacks on the evils of segregation and discrimination, King had been deeply frustrated by what he saw was the inertia of the civil rights movement. So many leaders (black as well as white) had attempted to challenge discrimination, vocally and publicly, but nothing ever had enough momentum to make real progress. No one had been able to figure out what needed to change, and why the whites had so successfully been able to convince the black community that desegregation and equality was an impossibility—or at least something that would take many, many years to accomplish.

It took him a long time to comprehend that the reason behind the continued stagnancy of civil rights lay in the black community itself. He concluded that most blacks accepted the conditions of their lives as given, and had no expectation that anything would ever change. He traced the roots of this mindset to basically a “slave mentality,” the spiritual legacy of physical bondage.

He saw that it was just this interior bondage that had to be rooted out before it could be reflected in societal change.

And so Dr King saw that the parameters of the whole struggle had to be recast—the enemy was not just the “white mystique of invincibility,” but the inner “psychology of servitude.” It came down to dignity: King recognized true freedom was impossible without “a process of liberation attained by 1) the recognition of individual dignity and 2) the imposition of the claim that dignity asserts on the actions and policies of others.”

And so I have to wonder if my own cynicism about the March for Life isn’t slipping into the same kind of interior bondage—not to the culture of slavery but the culture of Death. (Maybe in the end they’re not so different.) Isn’t the lesson from the life of Dr King that a victory over the culture of death begins with a victory over my own interior darkness and death, which is fundamentally a spiritual reality, and a recognition that the dignity of others has a claim on me, whether or not society as a whole recognizes that dignity?

This is why pro-lifers are right to condemn the use of violence in the name of the defense of unborn life. Apart from the obvious self-contradiction it involves, using force in this struggle is not compatible with a recognition of the dignity of those we oppose. I think this is why the pro-life cause is so profoundly misunderstood by our culture. Pro-lifers are often represented in the argumentative context of the media and pop culture, as self-righteous, but our struggle has nothing to do with absolving ourselves by condemning others.  That truth is brought out by Jesus’ call to repent on account of the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

We can never equate the line separating good from evil with the line between pro-life and pro-choice.  No: that line runs right through the human heart, yours and mine included.

That does NOT mean the utterly silly cliche repeated so often in our society today: "judge not, lest ye be judged."  There are few things more clear-cut than the taking of innocent life in the name of convenience.  What it does mean is that we are to present ourselves to the Lord, who calls out to us today in our darkness: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We are free to call others to repentance because we ourselves have tasted the bitterness of acknowledging our own sin. But we know that there is sweetness in it, too—sweetness, and light, and peace. There is healing for the repentant; Jesus still makes his way through this “Galilee of the Gentiles, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, curing every disease and illness among the people”. He does it through His Church, and the sacraments of penance and healing. She can’t stop calling the world to repentance without negating the whole reason for her existence.

And so I ask two things of you today: First, I ask your prayers that God send us another Dr King—someone to lead us to that day when the dignity of human life will be reverenced by our laws from conception to natural death. Second, these words of Jesus are addressed to each of us today. Take a look at where that line between good and evil that runs through your heart is sitting, and expose the hidden part that needs healing.

For my part, I’m pretty sure God wants to work on my cynical inclinations. We each have some need, some weakness, some unsurrendered or forgotten bundle of death that we keep stepping around like that pile of dirty laundry between the couch and the desk. As we approach the altar to receive the Lord in the Eucharist today, there is good reason to open ourselves to the light and freshness that banishes all darkness and disease, that our weakness and death might become grace for ourselves and light for the world.

08 January 2011


It was gratifying to read this in John Allen's recent interview with Francis Cardinal George:

One of the things I most miss as a bishop is hearing confessions. The conversations that take place in the sacrament of reconciliation are the most important conversations on the face of the planet. There you meet a soul in the presence of God ... I would very much like to make that ministry a large part of my life. 
At the threshold of my own life of priestly ministry, I can honestly say that my early fascination with hearing confessions has not been diminished in the least: it is what I look forward to the most.  Quite encouraging to hear a 74-year old priest say the same.

02 January 2011

On Worship as Epiphany

Homily outline for the Feast of the Epiphany
Delivered at Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish
Topeka, KS

For the last week, the Church has been lingering in Bethlehem, absorbed in the sight of the Child. Infinite greatness is here “dwindled to infancy”. We seek the eyes and heart of Joseph to witness this unfathomable mystery of divine love and condescension: to come into the world as a poor, vulnerable little baby.

But there is one facet in particular of this scene that the Church is drawing our attention to here. We are still in the Christmas season—today being the eighth day of Christmas—because there is so much more to take in than can be done in just one day. That is what we mean by “mystery”—something that so far exceeds our comprehension that we can keep coming back to it again and again and still get more.

So what is it that’s being held out to us today? It might be helpful to start with a review of what we might already know. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “striking appearance”. It’s associated in the liturgical year with today’s feast, along with the Nativity and the Baptism of the Lord—but this is the only one that we refer to exclusively as “Epiphany”. So we’re to understand that something important is being revealed to us today, something so crucial that the church names it the Epiphany.

We’re all familiar with the scene: the wise men come to present gifts and to adore the Christ child. Their decision to read the signs of the times and follow them wherever they led brought them to the most unimaginable place—the newborn king was not born in a palace but a cave used to shelter animals. The fact that the Magi were not of the Chosen people but from a faraway, Gentile country has traditionally been interpreted to mean that in this event, what is manifested is God’s intention to finally extend the offer of salvation fully to the Gentiles. God is the God of all, not just of Israel. That process of grafting onto God’s precious olive true the wild olive branches of the nations is what made possible our even being here in the first place. This gives us great reason to give thanks for the manifestation, the “epiphany” that took place so long ago.

But there’s something else important about the visit of the Magi. It’s easy for us to miss this more fundamental “manifestation” because it’s based not so much on who did come to pay adoration to the baby Jesus, but who didn't.

Here’s what I mean.

Scripture teaches us that the Child, God’s Holy Word, and therefore the very Person of God, can only be approached in an attitude of adoration.

There is no other way for it to happen. That is what it means to call out to God with a “pure heart”—a prayer that is untainted by self-interest or self pity. The pure heart prays for no other reason than that God is worthy of honor and thanks: "He’s worth it."

This is exactly what we mean when we call what we do at Mass or in the privacy of our prayer “worship”. That word, “worship”, comes from an old Germanic word that is something like what we would pronounce as “worth-ship”—the state of being worthy to receive honor.

What the magi have in common with every other person in the scene is this attitude of adoration and worship. The wise men seek nothing more than to offer gifts and present themselves as servants of the newborn King. Everyone else is excluded—the religious authorities, novelty-seekers interested only in a spectacle, and especially Herod who sees in Jesus only a threat to his own power. None of them have a pure heart, a worshipping heart. Their hearts are hardened.

Now, this idea of praising and worshipping God is something we Catholics can see as something abstract or just to be read out of a book, but we engage in this practice all the time, naturally, spontaneously, in our everyday circumstances. We love to praise what we enjoy or admire: whether they’re athletic feats, or a great performance by a classic band, or a great leader, or just someone who inspires or motivates us by their everyday excellence. We love to praise good things and good people because they’re worth it—they’re praiseworthy. And we feel the need to communicate to others the “worth-ship” of what we enjoy and admire.

But it’s also interesting to notice that in the act of praising things, we also enjoy them—not as a past memory, but a present experience. Praising and adoring makes present what we love, and in a way, manifests it.

That, I think, is the deeper truth of our feast of the “Epiphany” today: God is made present, God is manifested, in our adoration of Him.

If that is the case, then that puts what we are doing here, in this church today and every Sunday, in a whole new light, doesn’t it? Are the words we pray along with in the Mass just empty phrases that we’re repeating thoughtlessly, or words of praise that well up out of our hearts, which "throb and overflow" with love for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Is 60:4, from today's first reading)?

If you find yourself in the second category, thank God, and keep it up. You already know better than I could ever tell you how the Spirit of God is active and bearing fruit in your life. Let Him continue to captivate and fascinate you, and draw you deeper into communion with Him--keeping in mind that we can’t hold to the ideal all the time, and that our life in the Spirit is constantly rising and falling.  Don’t ever get discouraged.

But if we find ourselves are in the first category, asking ourselves what it is that we're supposed to be "getting out of this," let’s take some time today, on the first of the year, to set aside 15-20 minutes (or however long it takes) to do some soul-searching. What is it that’s holding me back from approaching the crib along with the Magi? Is this experience of emptiness when I worship at Mass God’s doing, or mine? How have I excluded myself from the stable by imitating the novelty-seekers? or the religious professionals who ruled out Jesus as the Messiah before ever setting eyes on him? or even Herod?  They all refused to adore the Word made flesh on HIS terms.  Have I deceived myself by acting as the Lord of the Truth rather than approaching the one Lord of Truth in an attitude of reverence?

Above all, let’s make our prayer together today count as if God’s manifestation to one another and to the world depended on it—which, in fact, it does. Let’s shed some of that self-consciousness that holds us back from putting some feeling into our words or by letting even our posture and our movements convey the reverence, joy, and love we want to offer to God.

Let’s respond to the Church’s call to Come and Adore Him.