16 September 2017

On the failure to forgive

24th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt. Carmel/OLR, NOLA

In Dante's Inferno, those who lived and died as slaves to anger are consigned to the Fifth Circle of Hell.* The violently angry spend eternity attacking one another on surface of the swampy waters of the River Styx. The sullenly angry sulk beneath the slime, forever stewing in their self-imposed loneliness. Though they share in the sin of inordinate anger – expressed in different ways – what these sinners have most in common is their stubborn refusal to forgive. . .while they could. Rather than release her offender from his debt, the violently angry sinner slashes out in a rage, causing him harm. And rather than release his offender from her debt, the sullenly angry sinner retreats into a silent, brooding resentment that slowly consumes all of his charity. When our Lord urges us to forgive our offenders as many times as necessary, he's not giving us some Hallmarkish therapeutic advice for Better Living. He's telling us outright that the failure to forgive – in the end – is tantamount to choosing to live for all eternity basting away in the slimy waters of the River Styx, Hell. The failure to forgive another is the failure to receive forgiveness from God.

If forgiveness were easy to give, we wouldn't need our Lord to command us to do it. We wouldn't need that image of the master turning his unforgiving servant over the torturers. That forgiveness is difficult to give is part and parcel of our fallen humanity. But why is forgiveness so hard to give? It might be b/c we are afraid that forgiving someone who has offended us might come to believe that his/her offense wasn't really all that offensive to begin with. If I can easily forgive being hurt, then maybe I wasn't that badly hurt in the first place. Maybe forgiveness is hard b/c we are afraid of being hurt again by the same person, by the same offense. If I forgive this hurt, maybe he/she will hurt me again in the same way. Or perhaps forgiveness is hard b/c we like the feeling of another being in our debt for sin. She hurt me and I'm not forgiving her b/c I like that she owes me. As our Lord makes clear, my failure to forgive is a trap for me. There is no justification, no way to make right, my refusal to grant to another what God has freely given to me. Yes, I've been sinned against – terribly wounded – and my fallen nature urges me to seek justice, to seek balance. But when I seek that balance w/o acknowledging that my own sins have been forgiven, what I am truly seeking is vengeance. 
And unrepented vengeance earns me a dip in the River Styx, or a visit with the master's torturers. Our Lord recounts at the end of his parable: “I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?'” The obvious answer here is: “Yes, Lord!” If you can't bring yourself to answer that question in the affirmative, why not? The most common reason I've heard as a priest goes something like this: “I could say that I've forgiven, but I don't feel like I've forgiven.” Our Lord requires us to “forgive from the heart,” meaning a genuine forgiveness that relieves the other person of his/her debt to us. No where does the Lord require us to feel good about forgiving another. No where does he demand that we be happy about it. Forgiveness is an act of the will – from the heart – we just do it. And then we go on with our lives knowing that no one owes us a debt of sin, knowing that we ourselves owe no one a debt of forgiveness. “Wrath and anger are hateful things,” Sirach tells us. And only a sinner holds them tight.

*Cantos VII - IX

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10 September 2017

Discerning a priestly vocation?

For those discerning a vocation to the Order of Preachers, there's a new website operated by the OP friars of Memphis, TN. . .

Priest Vocation

Check it out!

Don't be a stubborn mule!

23rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Long after celibacy and poverty have become routine for us priests and religious, obedience remains a struggle. We can get used to not having that one special someone, and we can get used to relying on the community treasury for our basic needs. But surrendering my stubborn will to the authority of another? That's a very different story! When I'm asked to do something I don't want to do, I can hear that sneaky spirit of rebellion whispering to me – You're an adult! You're well-educated and entitled to your opinion! You know what's best for you! You have rights too, you know! That's the Self rising in pride to war against a vow made long ago. And because I am being perfected and not yet perfect, I need to be reminded of the wisdom of humility. Constantly reminded. The hand cannot grasp without the wrist. Nor the wrist bend without the arm. And so on. Humility – at the least – is the submission of one’s body and soul to the necessity of playing well with others. In other words, as Christians we don’t get to take our ball home just because we don’t like the rules of the game. We’re in this game of holiness together (like it or not) and sometimes that means (like it or not) that we have to hear that we aren’t playing well with others.

Despite our discomfort with delivering or receiving such a message, deliver and receive we must. The Lord tells Ezekiel, “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die [for disobeying me],’ and [if] you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” My hand may stick a knife into my enemy’s heart because my enraged brain sends the order; however, I am held responsible for his death – Me, body and soul. Not just my hand, not just my brain. And when I am brought to justice for murder, it is perfectly reasonable to ask: who knew he was capable of murder? Who failed to teach him the sacredness of life? Who failed to speak out and dissuade him? The law will call this “culpable negligence.” Our Lord will call it “a failure to love.”

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, referring to Christ’s teaching on the greatest commandment, writes: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. . . Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Taking Ezekiel and Paul together we can see that love and obedience are inseparably bound together. Love without obedience is just sentimentality. Obedience without love is just groveling. Love with obedience is fraternal correction done well. This why Jesus, all too aware of our fragile egos and nonetheless painfully aware of the consequences of our failure, lays out a process for calling another to obedience in love: first, one on one; then, one with two or three more; then one with the whole Church. If the Church cannot extract obedience in love from the dissenter, then “treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector,” that is, treat the stubborn one like an unclean stranger or a traitor to the family. This is not cruel. It is responsible stewardship. 
Reflecting on why fraternal correction is so difficult to deliver and receive, I am forced to look carefully in the mirror. I won’t claim to be an average American Catholic since most Catholics aren’t Dominican priests. However, my stubborn will was trained in the modernist assumptions of a rural working class family. Persons are highly autonomous individuals. Freedom is the unhindered right to choose whatever I want. And whatever I want is right for me. Years in religious life have done a lot to inform my intellect about the problems I face as a stubborn mule, but they have done little to move my will. What does Paul say, “I do what I do not want to do. . .” Essentially, the problem is this: when confronted with fraternal correction I immediately argue myself to two conclusions: 1). the person correcting me is not qualified to correct me because he is sinful too, and 2). I refuse to listen because my corrector is motivated by envy, or control issues, or a personal dislike, or political enmity, so he can't be correcting me in love. In one fell swoop I have committed two sins: presumption and lack of charity. And the dry well I have dug for myself just gets deeper and deeper.

That explains why I don’t hear correction well. Why don’t I deliver correction well? Basically, I distrust my own motives and I fear that the one I am correcting will point them out to me. Who wants to hear the ugly truth about one’s prejudices? There’s also the danger that the other guy will rebut with a correction of his own. And that correction might be true! Ouch. Like most of you, I do not want my freedom violated by a questionable correction, and I certainly don’t want my freedom restricted by someone with an agenda that fails to take love into account. . .even if what my corrector is trying to tell in love me is true. . .maybe especially if what he is trying to tell me is true! My experience tells me that it is truly the extraordinarily holy person who can deliver and hear a correction without the sins of pride and rebellion stirring up an over-the-top reaction. But holiness is required of us. For better and worse, we are nothing without love and we cannot grow in holiness without obedience.

Paul’s wisdom is our salvation here: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another. . .” Said another way, possess no debt except the debt of love that you owe to those whom you have promised to love. Alone, we are nothing. Together we are Christ, made one body in one baptism for the preaching of the Word. The discipline of humility that comes from fraternal correction is made possible by and strengthened by a closed mouth and an opened heart. Difficult? Not at all. It’s almost impossible. But if this life in Christ were easy we would have no need for the Church, no need for one another.

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03 September 2017

Don't put down your cross!

22nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Our Lord names Peter “Satan.” Last week, he named Peter “the Rock,” the rock upon which his Church would be built. How does Peter go from being “the Rock” to “Satan” in a week's time? Having declared his belief that Jesus is the Christ, and receiving his title, “the Rock of the Church,” Peter ends up doing what many of us do when confronted by a crisis of faith. We panic. . .and do or say something dumb. When Peter hears Jesus say that he – Jesus – must go to Jerusalem and die at the hands of his enemies, Peter blurts out the dumbest possible thing he could, “God forbid!” Apparently, in his panic, Peter forgets that Jesus is God – a confession he himself made just last week – and that God is telling him what must happen. Rather than comfort Peter or accompany him or engage him in encounter, Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Sorry. But Jesus would get an “F” in pastoral practice at the seminary! Rather than coddle Peter's lack of faith, Jesus calls him out as a tempter, giving him the name of humanity's greatest spiritual enemy. Jesus knows that he must carry his cross and die. Not even the Rock can be allowed to deter him.

So, what does all this have to do with the price of crawfish at Dorignac's? Besides showing us how even an Apostle, Peter the Rock, can allow his fear to overrule his faith, Jesus is revealing to us a truth bound to make us a little queasy – we all have a cross to carry and Satan's self-appointed task is tempt us into putting it down. Jesus knows that he is bound for Jerusalem and death. He knows he's going to be betrayed, tortured, and executed. He bears all this as his cross, along with humanity's sinful nature. If he were to allow Peter to tempt him into laying down his cross, humanity's salvation would be thwarted. We would – even now – dwell in darkness and death, without any hope for redemption. Instead, Jesus does what he must. He rebukes Peter and reveals another hard-to-hear truth: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” That's God's thinking not Man's. It is Satan who encourages us to set aside our crosses and make ourselves more comfortable. It is Satan who teaches us that our crosses are unbearable burdens; that our crosses are unnecessary restrictions on our liberty. It's his job to make us believe that we can still receive God's love even as we set aside the very tools we need to receive His love.

If you think it's strange to look at the cross you carry as a tool for receiving God's love, think again. Think this way instead: Jesus' cross was his tool for receiving God's love for all of humanity. The cross was the instrument – the tool – by which Jesus took up our sinful natures and gave them to our Father in sacrifice, freeing us from sin and death. If this is true for Christ, why can't it be true for us as well? Jesus himself says that taking our crosses is a condition for following him. Following him where? If you follow him, you end up where he did – dying sacrificially on your cross; that is, dying to self for the sake of Christ to become holy. In his desperation to prevent you from dying to self and becoming holy, Satan will tempt you with every trick at his disposal. One of his oldest tricks – the one Peter tries out – is to try and convince you that your cross is an unnecessary burden; that you have been unfairly treated in the games of crosses; that somehow or another you have been especially picked out of the crowd to endure extra trials. And b/c you have been so sorely mistreated by God, you deserve a break, you are entitled to set your cross aside and just coast for a while. And when you do, Satan slithers up next to you, and says, “Let me show you an easier way. . .”

And that “easier way” is indeed easier. . . and shorter, faster, less expensive. . .and deadlier. Set your cross aside – your tool for receiving God's love and growing in holiness – and your way is most definitely easier. Because there is nothing easier than choosing to be separated from God. . .forever. What Satan knows and we must never forget – no cross of ours is ever bigger than our Father's love for us. No cross of ours is ever deadlier than life lived in shadow of the devil's lies. Whatever your cross is – disease, poverty, bad marriage, sexual vice, alcohol, drugs, whatever it is – your cross is temporary, and Christ is always, always, always with you. Carry that cross while following Christ's teachings, dying to self in loving sacrifice for another, and you will better receive God's ever-present love and mercy; you will grow in holiness. Our crosses are not lifestyle choices, or a harmless bad habits, or unfair impositions on our freedom. They are living, breathing tools for lifting up our brokenness. By lifting up to God that which threatens to smother us in sin, we give Him glory, and He takes our contrite hearts as worthy sacrifice. When Satan tempts you to lay down your cross and take it easy, say to him, “What profit would there be for me to gain the whole world and forfeit my life?”

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02 September 2017

Jennifer, contact me!

Jennifer, you sent me a box of paint and medium. . .thank you!

However, one tube of paint didn't make it into the original box. 

Amazon sent it later. Unfortunately, they didn't send paint.

They sent something else entirely!

You may have ordered it for yourself, so I want to make sure that you receive it.

Leave me a comment here so I can get in touch with you. I won't publish your comment.

Fr. Philip Neri, OP


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29 August 2017

Glittering gold, burdensome lead

St. Augustine
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Painting a vivid picture of their woe, Dante consigns Hypocrites to the Eighth Circle of Hell: “Down here, a people of elaborate design/perambulated at a mournful pace;/their attitude was hollow and resigned.//The lurid cloaks in which that are encased/had monkish cowls made in the Cluny mode,/obscuring almost all the upper face.//Without was dazzling filigree of gold;/within was lead, of such a density/that Frederick's copes were lighter sevenfold.//O weary mantle for eternity!”* Hypocrisy is not only a “weary mantle for eternity”; it is also a burdensome disguise for any Christian in the here and now, most especially the Christian minister, or those aspiring to become Christian ministers. In Dante's Hell, sinners live-out their principal sins. . .forever. Because they have chosen to be in Hell, sinners cannot leave their punishments behind. They made their eternal choices while alive on Earth. And now, God honors – forever – their choice to be separated from Him. For the hypocrite, he lived his life on Earth glittering in gold on the outside, while carrying his sin like lead on the inside. His spiritual progress on Earth is mirrored in Hell – he walks in circles, going nowhere, slowly. 
Our Lords says to the scribes and Pharisees, “Woe to you, you hypocrites. You lock the Kingdom of heaven before men. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.” The spiritual leader who practices hypocrisy lives that sort of life that, in word and deed, glitters like gold on the outside but rots on the inside; and, in effect, locks the door to heaven, forbidding entrance not only to those whom he leads but to himself as well. A life lived in hypocrisy is an inauthentic life, a life where the freedom of the Child of God is shoved into a joyless, merciless spiritual straitjacket, and its misery is spread with the rule of a father's authority. Our Lord condemns the scribes and Pharisees to eternal woe b/c they deprive themselves and others of the Father's freely offered mercy, burying His offer in mounds of religious acrobatics – hoops to leap, walls to climb, moats to swim. Where these men should be bridges to God, they are instead obstacle courses. Where they should be teachers, they are scolds. Where they should be preachers, they are haranguers. And b/c they are hypocrites for money, they are triply-damned. “Woe be to you” (x3).

This all sounds severe. Maybe even terrifying. And it should. As ministers and aspiring ministers of the Gospel, we are doubly responsible to Christ the Judge for how we carry out his work. We are responsible for ourselves and those we are charged to serve. How do we avoid hypocrisy? Dante's infernal punishment of the hypocrite is our answer. Everything that glitters gold on the outside must be matched and even surpassed by the glittering gold on the inside. This doesn't mean constant moral purity! It means that we first receive the Gospel, teach and preach the Gospel, live out the Gospel, and then spend ourselves doing everything possible to lift up those who look to us for help. We unlock doors of mercy. We build bridges to Christ. We knock down walls around forgiveness. And we go to God – in the end – confident that we have done His work, bearing witness to His truth in love. 

*Inferno, Canto XXIII (trans. Carson)

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26 August 2017

Tape it to your coffee pot or steering wheel. . .

21st Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Anthony of Padua, NOLA

Here in New Orleans we are experts on a few things. Food. Partying. How to wait for a hurricane, which usually involves food and partying. What to do when it rains for too long. And the absolute necessity of solid foundations. . .even if those foundations are nine or so feet off the ground. When you live in a city where the ground resembles a wore-out sponge and the sky never seems to stop crying, you learn to appreciate the usefulness of a rock-solid, never-shifting foundation. Even if everything on top of that foundation gets swept away, the foundation itself remains, ready to start again. We need good foundations for our buildings, and we need good foundations for our faith. In a world that seems to have lost its mind lately, where everything we once thought certain and sure has been swept away, we need the best foundation to keep our place. Christ himself has given us that foundation: Peter and his Church. On his profession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, Peter receives the keys to the kingdom of heaven from Christ and hears our Lord say, “. . .you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” IOW, come hell or high water, the Church is here to stay!

And stay she has for 2,017 years. Through the bloody persecutions of Rome's emperors. Through the destruction of the empire by Vandals, Goths, and Visigoths. Through the schism between East and West. Through the Black Death which killed at least half of Europe's people, some 140 million souls. Through three popes reigning at the same time. Through Luther's revolt and the rise of Protestantism. The best intellectual efforts of “Enlightenment” era philosophers and politicians. The French Revolution and its Cult of Reason. Napoleon's empire. The Kaiser's Kulturkampf. The Bolshevik Revolution. The First and Second World Wars. The post-Vatican Two turmoil. The Age of Aquarius. The best efforts of dissenters and revolutionaries within the Church in the 70's, 80's, and 90's. And now – in 2017 – the Church will endure through the current particularly American insanity that pretends to create reality out of thin air by using the correct terminology. Without a solid foundation in the apostolic faith, Catholilcs are liable to end up believing five-year old boys can be magically changed into ten-year old girls just b/c they say so. Thanks be to God we have the Rock of Peter and his Church.

All that the Church has endured over the centuries bears witness to Christ's promise that not even Hell will prevail against her. And his promise endures not b/c the Church is somehow mystically protected from harm. There's no magic at work here. Christ identifies both Peter and Peter's faith as the Rock the Church is built upon. With the Holy Spirit's guarantee to Peter against error and the living faith of the People of God, the Church navigates the world's dangers and the world's silliness to maintain a constant heading toward preaching the Good News and caring for souls. Along the way, members of the Body will jump ship and swim off to answer siren calls, finding themselves dashed against the rocks of all sorts of nonsense. Even religious, priests, and bishops have been and will be seduced on occasion. But when we cling – and cling hard – to Peter's confession – “You are the Christ!” – we can clearly see the silliness for what it is. The nonsense for what it is. What better way is there for us to endure than to cling – and cling hard – to the Way, the Truth, and the Life who is Christ Jesus?

Our Lord has a question for us all: who do you say that I am? That's not a rhetorical question. That's not a question the preacher asks just to sound like he saying something profound. It's a real question from 2, 000 years ago and right this moment. Jesus wants to know who you think he is. Your answer to this question determines whether or not you're in the boat or swimming toward the rocks. If, with Peter, you say, “You are the Christ!” then the next question is all too obvious: do you live like you believe he's the Christ? We are no longer living in a Christian culture. Not even in New Orleans. We can no longer look to our political and cultural institutions for support in the faith. Even our public language, our common ways of speaking with one another, no longer carries the weight of our Christian tradition. Maybe, at one time, we could move through our day and find constant reminders of the faith. This is probably true now only for those of us who work in the Church. So, it has to be said: just showing up is not enough anymore. Your faith must be chosen, intentional; it must determined and in evidence. If not, you are in danger of losing it, or leaving it behind. Tape it to your steering wheel, over your desk; stick on your alarm clock, or your coffee pot; write in on your hand or your favorite book; make it your desktop wallpaper, or your ringtone: Who do I say Jesus is?

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19 August 2017

We don't teach the Lord

NB. This Sunday's Gospel reading tempts Catholic preachers into Christological error. You may hear your pastor/deacon say that the Canaanite woman teaches Jesus a lesson about inclusivity. This is the standard historical-critical interpretation from 1983. And it is wrong. Thus, I'm excerpting a portion of a Roman homily from 2008 to provide a less erroneous view:

We need to dispense immediately with the ridiculous claim that this story is about a “marginalized woman of color teaching Jesus a lesson about radical inclusivity.” Creatures teach the Creator nothing. Jesus and the woman, however, do manage to teach the disciples that access to the Lord’s table is about trusting in the Living Word and not about one’s lineage, nationality, or relative status according to the Law. The Canaanite woman is made a child of God by her faith! In her humility, she asks for help and then testifies that any help she receives will be a gift and not an entitlement. Jesus rewards her faith by giving her her greatest desire: “…the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.”

We can confess up front that more often than not we are the disciples in this story. We’re the ones wanting to protect Jesus from harm, to prevent others from defiling him or abusing his name. We will set ourselves outside the tent as guards against the unworthy, as gatekeepers against the annoying and the merely curious. With stout arms crossed across our proud chests we are vigilant against the unclean dogs sniffing around for hand-outs; those who have not earned an audience by showing loyalty; those who would waste the Lord’s time with trivialities; obviously, as his only loyal disciples, we are best selected as his secretaries, his guards, his watchers. Occasionally, we may even have to protect him from himself. Imagine if he wanted to do something stupid like sacrifice his life in order to save everyone! Everyone! Not just the deserving, the observant, the righteous, and the clean, but just anyone who might accept his invitation to join his eternal table. Oy! What a mess. Sometimes we might have to protect Jesus from Jesus. Sad but true.
The entire homily is here: Access Denied.

06 August 2017

Mankind's definitive deliverance from evil

NB. The new pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary, Fr. Jonathan Hemelt, will be celebrating all of the Masses there through the month of August. I will return to OLR in September.

I can't think of a better reflection on the Feast of the Transfiguration that these paragraphs from BXVI brilliant 2007 post-synodal exhortation:


10. In instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus anticipates and makes present the sacrifice of the Cross and the victory of the resurrection. At the same time, He reveals that He Himself is the true sacrificial lamb, destined in the Father's plan from the foundation of the world, as we read in The First Letter of Peter. By placing His gift in this context, Jesus shows the salvific meaning of His death and resurrection, a mystery which renews history and the whole cosmos. The institution of the Eucharist demonstrates how Jesus' death, for all its violence and absurdity, became in Him a supreme act of love and mankind's definitive deliverance from evil.

11. By His command to "do this in remembrance of me", He asks us to respond to His gift and to make it sacramentally present. In these words the Lord expresses, as it were, His expectation that the Church, born of His sacrifice, will receive this gift, developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the liturgical form of the sacrament. The remembrance of His perfect gift consists not in the mere repetition of the Last Supper, but in the Eucharist itself, that is, in the radical newness of Christian worship. In this way, Jesus left us the task of entering into His "hour." "The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving." Jesus "draws us into Himself." The substantial conversion of bread and wine into His body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of "nuclear fission," to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.

23. Certainly the ordained minister also acts "in the name of the whole Church, when presenting to God the prayer of the Church, and above all when offering the eucharistic sacrifice." As a result, priests should be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in first place, but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the center of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord's hands. This is seen particularly in his humility in leading the liturgical assembly, in obedience to the rite, uniting himself to it in mind and heart, and avoiding anything that might give the impression of an inordinate emphasis on his own personality.

36. The "subject" of the liturgy's intrinsic beauty is Christ Himself, risen and glorified in the Holy Spirit, who includes the Church in His work. Here we can recall an evocative phrase of Saint Augustine which strikingly describes this dynamic of faith proper to the Eucharist. The great Bishop of Hippo, speaking specifically of the eucharistic mystery, stresses the fact that Christ assimilates us to Himself: "The bread you see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. The chalice, or rather, what the chalice contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. In these signs, Christ the Lord willed to entrust to us His body and the blood which He shed for the forgiveness of our sins. If you have received them properly, you yourselves are what you have received." Consequently, "not only have we become Christians, we have become Christ himself." We can thus contemplate God's mysterious work, which brings about a profound unity between ourselves and the Lord Jesus: "one should not believe that Christ is in the head but not in the body; rather He is complete in the head and in the body."

46. Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved. The homily is "part of the liturgical action", and is meant to foster a deeper understanding of the word of God, so that it can bear fruit in the lives of the faithful. Hence ordained ministers must "prepare the homily carefully, based on an adequate knowledge of Sacred Scripture". Generic and abstract homilies should be avoided. In particular, I ask these ministers to preach in such a way that the homily closely relates the proclamation of the word of God to the sacramental celebration and the life of the community, so that the word of God truly becomes the Church's vital nourishment and support. The catechetical and paraenetic [moral instruction] aim of the homily should not be forgotten. During the course of the liturgical year it is appropriate to offer the faithful, prudently and on the basis of the three-year lectionary, "thematic" homilies treating the great themes of the Christian faith, on the basis of what has been authoritatively proposed by the Magisterium in the four "pillars" of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the recent Compendium, namely: the profession of faith, the celebration of the Christian mystery, life in Christ and Christian prayer.

82. In discovering the beauty of the eucharistic form of the Christian life, we are also led to reflect on the moral energy it provides for sustaining the authentic freedom of the children of God. Here I wish to take up a discussion that took place during the Synod about the connection between the eucharistic form of life and moral transformation. Pope John Paul II stated that the moral life "has the value of a 'spiritual worship', flowing from and nourished by that inexhaustible source of holiness and glorification of God which is found in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist: by sharing in the sacrifice of the Cross, the Christian partakes of Christ's self-giving love and is equipped and committed to live this same charity in all his thoughts and deeds". In a word, "'worship' itself, eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented".

This appeal to the moral value of spiritual worship should not be interpreted in a merely moralistic way. It is before all else the joy-filled discovery of love at work in the hearts of those who accept the Lord's gift, abandon themselves to him and thus find true freedom. The moral transformation implicit in the new worship instituted by Christ is a heartfelt yearning to respond to the Lord's love with one's whole being, while remaining ever conscious of one's own weakness. This is clearly reflected in the Gospel story of Zacchaeus. After welcoming Jesus to his home, the tax collector is completely changed: he decides to give half of his possessions to the poor and to repay fourfold those whom he had defrauded. The moral urgency born of welcoming Jesus into our lives is the fruit of gratitude for having experienced the Lord's unmerited closeness.

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23 July 2017

The Weeds of Prayer

16th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

In prayer we are “beggars before God.” Having nothing, we ask for everything, and receive what we need. If we cannot quite put words to our needs, “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” Like the rest of creation, we too long to be raised to perfection, to be made complete again in the presence of God. But until we are given the beatific vision, we live and move in this world – needing, asking, receiving, giving; not knowing perfectly what comes next. Not knowing what comes next can be a source of anxiety or a source of freedom. If we trust in God, fully surrendering ourselves to His providence, not knowing what comes next is freeing. How we pray in this freedom is simple: “Lord, your will be done. I receive all You have to give!” Prayer becomes more complicated when we hold back, when we hide away bits of control, little needs to direct and dominate: “Lord, your will be done (if your will is to allow me to do my will), and I receive all You have to give (if what You have to give is what I want)!” This is not the prayer of a beggar. It IS the prayer of a willful child who falsely believes he/she knows perfectly what comes next. We don't know and acting on that not- knowing can kill us. Both physically and spiritually.

Jesus proposes to the crowds a parable about the wisdom of not acting in ignorance. He tells them (and us) to allow the weeds to grow among the wheat. We can't always tell the difference btw the weeds and the wheat. Pulling up the weeds might damage the wheat. Let them both grow and the harvesters will separate them – wheat to the barn, weeds to the fire. Full knowledge of which is which comes at the end not the beginning. The same is true for the differences btw our wants and our needs. If I pray in ignorance for what I need, I may be praying for what I want instead. And when I don't get what I think I need, I begin to doubt God's providence. Maybe I stop praying. Maybe I stop believing. Maybe – even – I turn against God b/c He has failed to meet my “needs.” My ignorance – my “not-knowing” – can cause me to stumble along the Way. . .unless. . .I know that I am ignorant and choose instead to surrender myself to God's providence and receive whatever He sends my way. “Lord, your will be done. I receive all You have to give!” The mature pray-er begins and ends in ignorance, allowing the Harvester to separate his wants from his needs, the wheat from the weeds.

What are the weeds in prayer? Jesus says, “While everyone was asleep [the farmer's] enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat. . .” Notice that everyone was asleep. They weren't keeping vigil. No one was on watch. And b/c no one was watching, the farmer's enemy was free to sow weeds. When we are not paying attention to our spiritual lives, when we are living life as if God doesn't exist, the Enemy is free to sow his weeds. His favorite weed to sow is the weed we'll call “Self-Sufficiency,” also known as “I Don't Any Help.” This weed tempts us to believe that we already know what the problem is and how to solve it. It tempts us – in our pride – to turn away from God's providence and rely on our own ingenuity. Or to tell God what the problem is and how He ought to fix it. Given enough time to grow this weed produces fruit called, “I Need a Hole Plugged.” God and His providence become little more than an emergency yelp when things go bad. There's a way to render these weeds powerless over your prayer. Don't pull them! Let them grow. But render them powerless by admitting upfront that you don't know what you need, desire God above all else, and receive all the He sends you with praise and thanksgiving. 
Paul lays all this bare for us in his letter to the Romans: “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought. . .” Paul is not suggesting here that we've forgotten the words to our prayers, or that we're praying the wrong prayers. He's telling us that our weakness – our ignorance (for we do not know how to pray as we ought) – is aided by the Spirit. We are strengthened in prayer by the Spirit, guided by the Spirit to struggle with our ignorance and surrender to the providence of God. Prayer is not a matter of overcoming not-knowing or learning all that we ought to know. Prayer is about placing ourselves – freely and generously – in the path of the Spirit so that He may take us up and deliver us – needs and all – into the presence of the One Who loves us. If we are tightly bound by sin, or diverted by disordered passions, or driven away by an ugly pride, we cannot throw ourselves in the path of the Spirit. Nor can we pray. Nor can we receive all that God has to give us. This is why Christ – “the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit” – sits at the right hand of the Father and “intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will.” What we do not know and cannot know about our own needs and about God's will, Christ knows. And he is there to hear us even when all we can do is groan.

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16 July 2017

Looking is not seeing. . .

15th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

I failed algebra twice in high school and once in college. In every other subject in high school and college both I did just fine. English, history, and philosophy were simple. . .compared to algebra. I managed – finally – to pass college algebra with a C+ by memorizing the formulas and using them mechanically. I understood literature. I understood the flow of history. I understood philosophical arguments. I could not understand the quadratic equation. To save my soul, the souls of my family and friends, the souls of the whole nation – I simply could not “get” algebra. And I still can't. I memorized the equations and mechanically applied them, having no clue how or why they worked. No doubt the sufferings of my poor teachers sprung many a soul from purgatory in those years. What I know now that I didn't know then is that “understanding” takes more than “knowing that” and “knowing how.” Understanding – true understanding – is knowledge put to work, lived out, lived with. The disciples ask Jesus why he teaches the crowds with parables. Jesus answers: “. . .they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.” Looking is not seeing; hearing is not listening. Seeing and listening to the Word of God are gifts given to us for our salvation. 
Some in the crowds have not yet received the gifts of seeing and listening. So, Jesus defends his use of parables in teaching on the grounds that there are some there who have not been granted knowledge of the kingdom's mysteries. Why don't these people have the knowledge required to see and listen? Jesus, quoting Isaiah 6, says, “Gross is the heart of this people.” He's recalling the orders that God gives Isaiah regarding His people, “Make the heart of this people sluggish, dull their ears and close their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and their heart understand. . .” The sluggish hearts of God's people refused to be moved by punishment, admonition, argument, or exile. They closed their eyes to miracles and their ears to prophecy. God orders Isaiah to let them languish in blindness and deafness “until the cities are desolate, without inhabitants, Houses, without people, and the land is a desolate waste.” In other words, God will allow His people to live with the consequences of their ignorance and disobedience until all that they have is destroyed. This is not another punishment, but a hard call to repentance and conversion. Isaiah is sent to make sure the message is crystal clear: repent, return to obedience, and be healed.

For those in the crowd who have received the gifts of seeing and listening, Jesus' message is crystal clear. For those with a heart open to the Word and a mind ready for the Truth, his parables are instructions for living a holy life. The seed of the Word flourishes in fertile soil. Rocks, sand, thorns, a blazing sun – all destroy the seed before it can take root. The seed of the Word cannot take root in a heart divided btw the Gospel and the World, in a heart that beats for Self Alone. The seed of the Word cannot flourish in a heart choked with anger, vengeance, malice, or pride. It cannot grow surrounded by self-righteousness, gossip, obscenity, or vicious habit. A disobedient heart cannot listen to the Father's offer of mercy, nor can it see the truth of His love. The parable comes into razor-sharp focus when the disobedient heart turns from sin and listens again to the wisdom of Christ: “. . .the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it.” And the one who understands “bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

Earlier I noted that I finally managed to pass college algebra with a C+ by memorizing the formulas and applying them mechanically. I did not understand algebra then, and I still don't. What I have come to understand is that our faith is not algebra. We cannot simply memorize the formulas and apply them mechanically. Faith is trust and trust must be lived – openly, freely, generously – with God and one another. That means taking some risks, perhaps some dangerous risks, but always risking with the assurance that whatever God has in the works for us it's for our eternal best. Memorized formulas and mechanical applications got me through algebra. . .that's b/c algebra is the sort of thing that just needs to be done not necessarily understood. Your relationship with the Father through Christ is a living relationship that requires tending – like a healthy garden or a growing child. It needs attention. It needs loving care. Left alone, your relationship with God will grow stale; it will grow “gross,” sluggish, and you will be left wondering why the abundant graces you once enjoyed are so scarce of late. Receive the gifts of seeing and listening so that the Word of God might be a constant sight and source of wisdom and inspiration for you. Put that wisdom into daily practice so that you can come to understand – truly understand – the faith you profess. Christ is asking you, me, all of us to become the good ground that yields a fruitful harvest!

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09 July 2017

Two Steps: Yoke Up and Learn

14th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Last Sunday we heard a discomforting truth: it is possible for us to be unworthy of Christ. If you love anyone or anything more than you love Christ, then you are unworthy of him. We heard this truth not from some sneering traditionalist cardinal lurking in the Vatican but from Jesus himself: “. . .whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” To be worthy of Christ, to be made worthy of Christ we must submerge all our loves in Love Himself, surrendering every attachment; drowning our actual sins, our disordered passions, and our vices in the blood and water of the Crucified Christ. ALL sinners are called to the Church; ALL sinners are welcomed in the Church. We are ALL called to repentance and welcomed as New Creations in Christ Jesus – when we confess, repent, and receive His mercy. When we have received His mercy through repentance, Paul says of us: “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” If only the Spirit of God dwells in you. How do we invite in and nurture the Spirit of God? Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. . .”
Two steps: take my yoke and learn from me. “Take the yoke” is Jesus' way of saying “Take me on as your Lord.” When a plowman yokes his oxen, he ties the two of them together, and then he ties the yoke to the plow. The plowman controls the plow by controlling the oxen. If you want to get really fancy, think of it this way: you and I are the oxen, pulling the plow, the Church, and Christ is the plowman. When we “take on the yoke” of Christ we submit ourselves to his Lordship, his rule. We give ourselves over to his mission and ministry in the world. We are bound together – you and I – tied together in the Church to plow, sow, and harvest as the Lord commands. Now, being the lazy academic priest that I am, none of this sounds particularly enticing! Yet! The Lord promises just that: “. . .my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” I remember – as a kid – plowing and weeding a three-acre garden under a hot summer sun in Mississippi. I don't remember it being neither easy nor light. But the Lord's yoke, his work for us is easy and light b/c we have invited in and nurtured the Spirit of God. Whatever Christ the Plowman has given us to do, he has done before us. His work is complete. We're catching up – for our good and the good of the whole world.

The second step – “learn from me” – follows on the first. Once we have yoked ourselves to the plow of the Church and placed ourselves under the rule of Christ, we learn; that is, by listening and doing, we come to a greater understanding of who we are in Christ. Note well: yoking first; learning second. The learning flows from the yoking. If we want to stand back – unyoked – and try to learn about Christ, we can. We can gather all sorts of interesting facts and theories and stories about the man, Jesus Christ. We can come to all sorts of fascinating conclusions and even call ourselves his followers. BUT if we want to truly learn – to contemplate, to be transformed – we must first be yoked to Christ and through him to one another. And what can we learn from the yoke? To work together? Yes. To share a common goal? Sure. But we don't need Christ for that. Yoked to Christ and through him to one another we learn what can only be learned so yoked: we learn to become Christ. His work is complete. You and I are not yet Christ. Our work continues. And it continues only through his Lordship and the indwelling of the Spirit of God.
Question time: have you taken on the yoke of Christ and learned from him? Think back to last week. Do you love anyone or anything more than you love Christ? Have you taken up your cross and followed him? If not, then you are not worthy of him. Despite the best efforts of our secular culture and even some in the Church, we cannot “unhear” Jesus say what he has already always said. We have choices to make. Graced choices. Choices that we are able to make only b/c God loved us first. His love for us includes the freedom to accept or reject His love. Accept or reject. One or the other. We cannot accept the parts we like and reject the rest. Or reject it all and still fuss about claiming our inheritance. Lest there be any confusion here: God loves us all. The good, the bad, and the ugly. And He wills that we love Him in return. BUT He also wills that we love Him freely. When we choose to freely love Him, our lives change. We yoke ourselves to Christ and submit to him as Lord. We learn – through listening and doing – to become Christs for others. And like Christ loving his Father, we surrender, we sacrifice our lesser loves so that we might become perfect as He is perfect. 
The discomforting truth is that we can choose not to submit, not to put on the yoke of Christ and learn from him. We can choose to believe that our sin isn't really sin, or that our disordered passions aren't really disordered, or that our vices aren't really vicious. But reality doesn't bend to wishes and make-believe. If you will be who you were made to be – a New Creation in Christ, a living temple for the Spirit of God – you will take on his yoke and learn. Jesus pleads with us, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

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04 July 2017

Two Revolutions (2009)

Independence Day (2009)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur, Fort Worth, TX

Jesus says to John's disciples, “No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth...People do not put new wine into old wineskins.” What does this bit of homespun wisdom have to do with weddings, fasting, the Pharisees, mourning the death of a bridegroom, and the price of camels in Jerusalem? Better yet: what do any of these have to do with the American Revolution and this country's declaration of independence from the tyranny Old King George? Is Jesus teaching us to party while we can b/c we won't be around forever? Is he arguing that we ought to be better stewards of our antiques—human and otherwise? Or maybe he's saying that the time will come when the older ways can no longer be patched up and something fundamentally new must replace what we have always had, always known. When “the way we have always done it” no longer takes us where we ought to go; when the wineskin, the camel, the cloak no longer holds its wine, hauls its load, or keep us warm, it's time to start thinking about a trip to the market to haggle for something new.

We celebrate two revolutions today: one temporal and one eternal, one local and the other cosmic. The political revolution freed a group of colonies in the New World from the corruption of an old and dying Empire. The spiritual revolution freed all of creation from the chains of sin and death. Today, we give God thanks and praise for the birth of the United States of America by celebrating our 4th of July freedoms. And we give God thanks and praise for the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ by celebrating this Eucharist, the daily revolution that overthrows the regime of sin and spiritual decay.

The revolution of 1776 not only toppled the imperial rule of George III in the American colonies, but it also founded a way of life that celebrates God-gifted, self-evident, and unalienable human rights as the foundation of all civil government and social progress. The revolution that Christ led and leads against the wiles and temptations of the world fulfills the promise of our Father to bring us once again into His Kingdom—not a civil kingdom ruled by laws and fallible hearts, but a heavenly kingdom where we will do His will perfectly and thereby live more freely than we ever could here on earth. In no way do we understand this kingdom as simply some sort of future reward for good behavior. This is no pie in the sky by and by. Though God's kingdom has come with the coming of Christ, we must live as bodies and souls here and now, perfecting that imperfect portion of the kingdom we know and love. No revolution succeeds immediately. No revolution fulfills every promise at the moment of its birth. The women and slaves of the newly minted United States can witness to this hard fact. That we continue to sin, continue to fail, continue to rebel against God's will for us is evidence enough that we do not yet live in fullest days of the Kingdom. But like any ideal, any program for perfecting the human heart and mind, we can live to the limits of our imperfect natures, falling and trying again, knowing that we are loved by Love Himself. With diligence. With trust. With hope. With one another in the bonds of Christ's love, we can do more than live lackluster lives of mediocre compliance. We can work out our salvation in the tough love of repentance and forgiveness, the hard truths of mercy and holiness.

Christ is with us. The Bridegroom has not abandoned us. His revolution continues so long as one of us is eager to preach his Word, teach his truth, do his good works. Today and everyday, we are free. And even as we celebrate our civil independence from tyranny, we must bow our heads to the Father and give Him thanks for creating us as creatures capable of living freely, wholly in the possibility of His perfection.

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02 July 2017

Worthy OR Unworthy. . .not both

13th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

It's standard Catholic fare these days on the internet and on TV for some Catholic personality or media-priest to declare that the Church must be more like Christ and drop her moral objections to [fill in the blank]. Without fail, that blank is filled with whatever trendy goofiness the elite secular culture is peddling this week, and it is always has something to do with sex. I wish I could tell you that this sort of thing is new in the Church, but it isn't. Since the day after the Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church more than 2,000 years ago, there have been those in the Church who cannot or will not tolerate the discipline our faith requires of us. These days they are especially keen on distorting perfectly good Christian practices like mercy, love, forgiveness, etc. to undermine the Way, the Truth, and the Life that Christ died to give us. Perhaps the most pernicious distortion making the rounds right now is the idea that since none of us is perfectly morally good, we should just dump Christ's teachings on being worthy of him and ignore our responsibility to call one another to holiness. The Church has no business admonishing sinners we're told. Just allow Catholics their moral ignorance; it's the “pastoral thing to do.”

Jesus begs to differ. He says to his apostles no fewer than three times that it is possible for us to be unworthy of him. We are unworthy if (1) we love our parents more than we love him; (2) if we love our children more than we love him; and (3) if we fail to take up our cross and follow him. Why do these three specific failures make us unworthy of Christ? Jesus says, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” In other words, if I find “my life” in my family and friends and in my self-centered interests, I will lose that life. BUT if I lose “my life” for the sake of Christ, in his name and for his mission, I will find it again. . .but radically altered. My family, friends, and interests don't simply vanish when I turn my life over to Christ; they return to me newly oriented, re-shaped at the root and pointed faithfully toward Christ. Now, I am able to love them all more perfectly through Christ, and see them all in his light. Our take-away here should be obvious: it is possible to be worthy of Christ and it is possible to be unworthy of him. But not both at the same time.

If I want to be unworthy of Christ, then all I have to do is love something or someone else more than I love him. If I love my car, my politics, my career, my sexuality, my bank account, my best friend, or anyone or anything else more than I love Christ, then I am unworthy of him. However, if I want to be made worthy of Christ, I give away my car, my politics, my career, my sexuality, my bank account, my best friend, and anyone or anything else that might diminish my love of Christ. When all these people and things return to me through Christ they will be radically re-oriented, fundamentally transformed in his likeness and given a new mission, a mission that is consistent with the ministry of the Body of Christ, the Church. I can choose to be worthy or unworthy. What I cannot do is choose to be worthy, claim to be worthy, demand that the Church recognize me as worthy and surrender nothing of what I love more than Christ. I may find a priest or bishop or Catholic media personality willing to pump me up and tell my sad story, but without the Cross, without my sacrifice, my surrender, I am telling and living a lie. Jesus can't say it anymore plainly than he does: “. . .whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”

Pope Francis has suggested that we see the Church as a “field hospital” where wounded patients come for emergency treatment. This is a brilliant image! Those sick with sin and wounded by the world can find immediate spiritual treatment in the sacramental care of the Church. Staying with that image. . .what would we say of someone who comes to the hospital and demands to be admitted as a patient; demands that the doctors not call their wounds wounds; refuses treatment of any kind; and then demands the doctors cease treating all the other patients with similar wounds? Furthermore, what would we say about a doctor who facilitates the admission of this person and bows to their demands? A doctor who looks at an obviously broken arm, says its not broken, does nothing to fix the arm, and then demands that the other doctors stop fixing all of the other obviously broken arms b/c they aren't really broken? I think you would say with me that we've entered some sort of Catholic Twilight Zone! If the Church is a “field hospital,” she is also a “medicinal community” where sickness and wounds are constantly treated as such. If no one is sick or wounded, then there is no necessary treatment. If there is no treatment to be given, then why are we here? 
We are here b/c we know that to be worthy of Christ, to be made worthy of Christ we must first surrender everything and everyone we love, submerging ourselves fully in the Love Who loves us first. That means drowning our actual sins, our disordered passions, our vices and allowing them to fall away in favor of being New Creations. We cannot be who God made us to be if we cling to the old self, demanding that the Truth change to fit our personal preferences. Christ changes us; we do not and cannot change Christ. If you will to be worthy of him, then “you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.”

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29 June 2017

Are you a Parlor Christian?

Ss. Peter and Paul
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

In his homily for this solemnity, Pope Francis asks us to consider this question: are we parlor Christians or apostles on the go? That phrase – “parlor Christians” – makes me smile b/c I remember my grandmother's parlor. Pristine; immaculately decorated with bric-a-brac, hand-painted ceramics, family pictures in heavy frames. I remember the sofa with its tiny embroidered floral patterns and oddly shaped pillows. What I remember most vividly, however, is the box of candy she kept on the coffee table. Candy forever out of my reach b/c the parlor was forbidden to five-year old's with grubby hands and feet. When Pope Francis asks us if we are “parlor Christians” or “apostles on the go,” I imagine that box of candy – tempting, just within reach – protected by the sanctity of the parlor's cleanliness, its holiness, if you will. That parlor was so set apart from the rest of my grandmother's house that it seemed another world, another time entirely. It was a sanctuary, a museum of sorts that trapped a treasure in uselessness. Are you a parlor Christian or an apostle on the go?

What is a “parlor Christian”? Parlor Christians are those who see God's graces as treasures to be hoarded and put on display, protected from grubby hands and feet, kept far away from the work-a-day world of sinning and forgiving. Like that room in grandma's house that serves no real, living purpose, parlor Christians are set-away, forbidding, almost lifeless in their determination to remain untouched by living in the goodness of creation. Guarding a treasure rather than using it, they worship the idea of holiness rather than allowing the Divine Treasure to make them truly holy in the world, for the world. Pope Francis – needless to say! – urges us to be apostles on the go. Like Peter and Paul, apostles for the establishment and spread of the Good News. Like Peter and Paul, witnesses unto death for the truth of the Gospel, bearing testimony in our words and deeds to the freely offered mercy of the Father to sinners. Like Peter and Paul, apostles who get dirty when we work, tired when we play. But who always rely entirely on the treasured graces abundantly poured by our Father Who never ceases to send us out again and again – fully equipped, well-rested, and ready to speak His word of truth.


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