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Quote of the Day: Pope Francis on Human Evil

November 24, 2015

A great quote from Pope Francis, with a hat tip to NCR:

Faced with the tragic events of human history, we can feel crushed at times, asking ourselves, ‘Why?’ Humanity’s evil can appear in the world like an abyss, a great void: empty of love, empty of goodness, empty of life. And so we ask: how can we fill the abyss? For us it is impossible; only God can fill this emptiness that evil brings to our hearts and to human history. It is Jesus, God made man, Who died on the Cross and Who fills the abyss of sin with the depth of His mercy.”

— Mass proclaiming St. Gregory of Narek a Doctor of the Church, April 12, 2015

The Last Sunday of Ordinary Time: The Feast of Christ the King

November 22, 2015

My third attempt at crafting a homily for the Sunday readings.  This time I had it pretty much worked out by yesterday, but was unable to find the time to write it up.  And then at mass this morning I got a completely different understanding of the readings. While not ideal were I actually required to preach each Sunday, praying over the readings while at mass opens them up for me in ways that simply thinking about them during the course of the week does not.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year.   We continue the theme of last week’s readings:  as we mark the end of the Church calendar, the readings lead us to reflect on the end of time, when Christ the King comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.  The prophet Daniel brings his apocalyptic vision to its triumphant conclusion, when  “one like a Son of man” is presented before the throne to receive “dominion, glory and kingship” and his kingdom will never end.  Daniel foresees both the end of the world and the beginning of an everlasting kingdom.   But the book of Revelation makes it clear that the kingdom of God is both still to come and with us now:  Jesus, the Son of man, IS “the ruler of the kings of the Earth”.   He reigns now:  his kingdom exists now, though we cannot perceive it clearly.

This is because the kingdom of God is not like other kingdoms, and Jesus is not like other kings.  Jesus did not pass from triumph to triumph, as the kings and emperors of his time did.  Rather, before the glory of the resurrection, Jesus had to take up the cross and suffer death for the sake of his kingdom.  In his dialogue with Pilate, Jesus emphasizes that his kingdom is not “of this world.”  It includes the world—he is King of kings and Lord of all—but it is not like the kingdoms of the world.   He does not have an army, only devoted followers.  He will not command them to kill in his name, even to save his own life.  Instead, he asks us to follow him, and to accept the cross.

Unlike the kings of the world, Jesus will not coerce or threaten us.  Rather, he testifies to the truth and calls us to listen to his word.  To become a subject of the Kingdom of God, we only have to accept the truth that Jesus proclaims.  This was the message Jesus preached 2000 years ago, and it is the message we are called to respond to today.  Each one of us, by our baptism, has been made a member of God’s Kingdom.  We are called to maintain and spread God’s Kingdom today, while we await the day when Jesus comes again in glory and all things are put under his feet.

How should we respond to the truth that is Jesus, our God and King?   With love and without fear.  Jesus does not want us to fear him.  Rather, he tells us again and again:  Do not be afraid!  The kings of old ruled by force and by fear.   Jesus does not want us to fear Him!  He wants love, not fear; he wants friends, not slaves.

So we should banish fear from our lives.  We should not fear death:  life is not ended but changed by death.  We should pray for the fullness of days for every person:  no one should have his or her life cut short by poverty, violence or disease.   But when the end comes we should see it as both a time of sadness and a time of joy.

And in death we should not fear the judgment of God.  Each one of us has sinned and fallen short of what God calls us to be, but God loves us and his mercy is broader than our sins.   Seek his mercy and it will be given to you.  Humble yourself, and you will be exalted.   We can all find this mercy in the sacrament of reconciliation.   Take it!

In our daily lives, we should not fear the powers of this world.   In our world, there are many–terrorists and politicians—who want us to be afraid.  They want us to fear them, or to fear others.  They use our fear to divide us, to undo the work of God’s kingdom.   Reject this fear!  Do not fear the poor, the homeless, the addicts and the others trapped on the margins of society.   Do not fear Black demonstrators.  Do not fear immigrants from Mexico and Latin America.  Do not fear Syrian refugees or other Muslim immigrants.  Rather, seek them out and show them mercy.

Jesus said, “love one another, as I have loved you.”   This is the message of the King.  This is how we can serve him and make the Kingdom of God more visible today.

A follow up to the Widow’s Mite

November 17, 2015

This is a quick post to follow up on my homily on the Widow’s Mite two weeks ago.  Yesterday, at a regularly scheduled meeting of department chairs, we had a presentation from the United Way of West Alabama—the University of Alabama is a big donor, and they were there to say thank you and to encourage our continued support.  The speaker shared a story about their work that really grabbed me, and I wanted to share it.

A few years ago, a couple, call them Bill and CJ, contacted the United Way because they had fallen on hard times and could not pay their electricity bill.  (Given how hot and humid it is down here, this is like not being able to pay your heating bill in New England.)  They were directed to an agency that is part of United Way, and got some help to pay the bill.

Ordinarily, this would be the end of the story at the United Way.  But a few months later they got a letter from Bill and CJ.  The couple had gotten back on their feet (or at least by their standards were doing okay, the woman telling the story suggested that the rest of us would find it pretty precarious) and they were grateful for the help.  They wanted to pay it forward, so they were sending a donation, all they could afford, to help out.  Enclosed was a check for $3.

Definitely something to bear in mind as we meditate on this Gospel story.

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Preparing for the End

November 15, 2015

My second installment of a sermon on the Sunday readings.  This one was much, much harder.  Even though I started preparing last Tuesday, it did not come together until today at mass.  The opening hymn was Gather Us In, one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite modern hymn.  I chose it for the processional hymn for my mother’s funeral last year.  Singing it today, particularly the verse about “the bread of new birth”, led me to the conclusion of my homily.


In today’s gospel we read the conclusion of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Marks’ gospel.  As we come to the end of the liturgical year–next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, and in two weeks Advent begins–the Church turns our attention to the end times.  Or more precisely, to the end of this world, and the advent of the world to come.    These are important things to consider.    The Creed, which we recite weekly, mentions them twice.  First, we profess that

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

And we conclude with our belief that

I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.

To the early Christians, these were pressing concerns:  they felt that the “end times” we immanent and they could expect to see the terrors that Jesus described come to pass.  Today, almost 2000 years after Jesus spoke, they have become less immediate.  We have a longer view of time:  the Earth is not  6,000 but rather 5 billion years old, and the most recent estimates of physicists place its end at least a billion years in the future.    For many people, against such a time scale the end of the world recedes comfortably out of view.

Read more…

Casting Wider Nets of Compassion

November 15, 2015

“I think that when people turn on their TVs and see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then they’ll go back to eating their dinners.”

– The character of Jack Daglish (played by Joaquín Phoenix) in Hotel Rwanda (directed by Terry George, 2004)

No [person] is an island, entire of itself; every [person] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, [the world] is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any [person]’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in [hu]mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
–John Donne

Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris have shaken the world. Prayers and condolences have poured out from everywhere. Social media was immediately lit up with expressions of grief and solidarity with the French people, and Facebook offered us the option to highlight our profile pictures in the colours of the French flag. Many users – myself included – took this option. Almost immediately afterwards, a backlash occurred. People began circulating a BBC News report of the April 2015 terrorist attack in Kenya, and as of this morning it was being listed as the most popular BBC story. Some changed their profile picture to the Lebanese flag, making the point that while Friday’s attacks on Paris dominate the news, Thursday’s bombings in Beirut, which killed 41 and injured more than 200, are hardly mentioned. The reasons for this are clearly summed up in this image which quickly began circulating around social media:

Mappamundi Tragico

As far as the media is concerned, not all tragedies are equal and the number of lives lost or amount of damage done has very little to do with the ways in which we react to the news we hear. Unfortunately, this map of our sentiments is all too true. If a violent event occurs in the United States or Western Europe – the so-called “developed world,”, we react in mass grief and shock – how could this happen to us? If a tragedy occurs in the Middle East or Central America – as it does daily in Syria, Iraq, Honduras and Guatemala – we do not react strongly, as we have come to accept violence as a norm in those countries. And if it occurs in Africa, we barely notice.

One reason for this is clearly the unequal balance of power in the world. Citizens of economically and politically powerful countries have managed to convince themselves – and some people in the rest of the world – that their countries matter more. For Europeans and Americans, Paris is the epitome of culture, a place we’ve either visited or hope to visit. As a friend of mine, the Mexican-Canadian writer Martha Bátiz put it, “The heart of Western civilization has been wounded, but you will not destroy or weaken what it stands for: civilization, erudition, knowledge, the beaux arts, the cradle of freedom, solidarity and equality. You will never defeat Paris.”

Then, there is the simple issue that it is easier to relate to people who are close by than those who live far away from us. I often get frustrated when my parents, tuned into the television news almost every waking hour, express their worries about the United States of America’s political and economic future while making little mention of the rest of the world. “This is my own country – it’s just easier to relate to,” my mother said, somewhat apologetically.

In a world that is ever more interconnected, with large-scale interconnected problems such as global terrorism, war, environmental degradation, depletion of resources, poverty, hunger and mass migration, it is clear that this attitude of seeing some parts of the world as more significant than others is no longer possible, much less ethical. There is one world, and we all share it – whether we live in Canada or Cambodia, Sweden or Sudan.

The next question, then, is what are we to do? How are we to proceed? As I have written before, our human capacity for empathy is great but finite, and we seem to be naturally predisposed to care more about the suffering of those close by than those far away. Moreover, we all suffer from “scope insensitivity,” the tendency to react more strongly to the suffering or death of a few people than to a large number. Hence the famous quotation attributed to Joseph Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions a statistic.”

In recent years, a small but growing movement has set out to resist these tendencies. Founded in the past five years by philosophers Peter Singer, Toby Ord, William MacAskill and others, the Effective Altruism movement urges people to focus on donating their time and money to those causes that will produce the most social good. One of the central starting premises for Effective Altruism is a commitment to focus on causes and issues that are being neglected by mainstream charities. Another underlying assumption is that all human lives hold the same amount of intrinsic value – thus, an American life is not worth more than a Senegalese life. And since it is less expensive to save lives in Africa than in the United States, we should focus our attention to the former. Charity Evaluators such as Givewell and Giving What We Can focus on helping to rate charities in terms of lives saved per dollar, and the ones that come out on top are often organizations that most of us have not heard of, such as the GiveDirectly, the Deworm the World Initiative, and the Against Malaria Foundation – charities that are usually driven by locals have been evaluated as having the most impact.

I do not identify as an effective altruist for many reasons – a discussion of these is beyond the scope of this post. I applaud this movement for its global focus, its determination to overcome the natural limits of our empathy and see the world as one, interconnected entity where all people matter. At the same time, I object to its premise that we have to make hard choices, constantly weighing one option against the other, focusing on certain groups of people at the expense of others. Effective altruism involves looking at some issues or groups of people and saying “This is important” while looking at others and saying “This is not so important.” An effective altruist would probably say that this kind of either-or mentality is a basic necessity for any kind of action. We all have limited amounts of time, energy, and money; we cannot donate to every worthy cause in the world; we cannot volunteer for every charity.

However, I believe that our capacity for compassion and action is actually much greater than we might assume. Indeed, the rapid spread of online messages urging people not to limit their empathy to the people of Paris but instead to extend it to all people facing violence is proof that we can cast wider nets of compassion; we can think of those who are far along with those are close. For me, this is a tremendous source of hope.

For much of human history it was virtually impossible for us to identify with anyone beyond our kinship network; later, we learned to relate to people who shared language and religion rather than mere bloodlines. The emergence of nation states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led people to identify with even greater numbers of people. Today, we are starting to realize that the borders of a nation cannot form the borders of our compassion.

I believe that we are capable of crusading for activist causes while being devoted heads of families; we have the capacity to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation as well as our local symphony; we can pray for peace in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Syria, Nigeria, El Salvador, Mexico and all places torn apart by violence. As the social media response to Friday’s tragedy reveals, we are capable of recognizing ourselves as part of this same beautiful, terrible, fragile, messy, deeply interconnected world.

Rene Girard and the Literal Sense of Scripture

November 12, 2015

We have recently (on my birthday, Nov. 4, in fact) lost one of the great thinkers of our time.  While others have offered helpful introductions to his work (the interested reader might look at “Robert Barron, Rene Girard, Church Father,” “Rene Girard: Are The Gospels Mythical” and “The Scapegoat: Rene Girard’s Anthropology of Religion and Violence,” in order), I want to take this opportunity to reflect on a problem that Rene Girard has helped me to better understand, an issue that is of pressing apologetic value in our contemporary situation.

The New Atheism is quite fixated on the kind of god it believes is revealed by the New Testament.  In the words of Richard Dawkins, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

It is hard to square this with all that stuff about caring for widows and orphans, but I digress.  The fact is that the Old Testament is, in fact, chock full of brutal scenes, some of which, at least, seem sanctioned by God.

In responding to the New Atheist critique, Robert Barron, for one, has turned to a spiritual reading of the Old Testament in the tradition of the Church Fathers.  Here’s an example:

For Barron, it is important that contemporary Christians read certain scandalous passages allegorically.  If God asks Saul to put the ban on the Amalekites, e.g., we must put the ban on sin in our lives.

And that way of reading Scripture is perfectly legitimate.  Not only does it have a long history in the Church, stretching back to the Fathers, Scripture itself sometimes reads Scripture allegorically.  Just think of Paul’s Old Adam and New Adam in Romans.

On the other hand, if you are like me, you might have the feeling that Bishop Barron has skipped a step somewhere.  Read more…

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Widow’s Mite

November 8, 2015

To the readers of Vox Nova:  I have not been posting much lately, as you may have noticed.  One excuse is that I have been busy with my new job, which is proving to be much more time consuming that I had thought it would be.  And I ask your prayers:  being a chairman is hard work, but I am really enjoying this opportunity.

But, at the same time, I have to admit that I have been having a hard time putting pen to paper, as it were.   I have ideas, and I promised one of our readers that I would respond on issues related to race, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.  But when I go to write, the few ideas I have seem like shards that I cannot assemble.

Reading this, you might be afraid that I am throwing in the towel and moving on, as so many of our great contributors have done over the past couple of years.   But something happened in the past week that has given me the hope (and perhaps the courage) to try again.  My wife and I joined a small discussion group at Church that has been reading and praying over Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.   This past week we read Chapter 3, where the Pope aims much of his writing to priests and deacons as he talks about the importance of good preaching for spreading the Good News that is Jesus Christ.   Our discussion turned, predictably, to the generally poor status of preaching in the Catholic Church.   This is exacerbated here in the South, as we have many adult converts (including two in the reading group) and they have experienced the high quality preaching that is the hallmark of baptist and evangelical churches in the region.   And then last night, at the vigil mass, I endured one more uninspiring, forgettable homily.  (Literally:  I cannot, for the life of me, remember anything he said.)   In exasperation, I said to myself, “I can do better than that!”  Today, while praying with my fraternity on the theme of “God centered poverty”, the same thought crossed my mind.  And it seems that God responded with a rather tart, “Put up or shut up!” 

Did God really speak to me in that moment, or was that my own vanity and pride issuing the challenge?  I do not know.  But the following is the result, and it arose nearly spontaneously as I reflected on the readings for this Sunday.  If this works, I shall try to write on again next week, and the week after, until I burn out, get distracted, or discover something about myself. 

Your thoughts and criticisms on both subject and form (as a sermon) are welcome.  I have not responded much to the comments I have gotten on recent posts, but I have read them, and I do take them to heart, particularly when our regular readers speak from the heart.

In today’s Gospel we hear the familiar story of the widow whose small contribution to the Temple treasury (two small coins, her “mites” in the language of the King James Bible) was noted and praised by Jesus.  We know why Jesus praised her gift, but have you asked yourself why she made this gift to the Temple?  She was poor in a time when the only social safety net was adult sons or the uncertain generosity of better-off neighbors.  And as she waited to make her offering, she would have seen that those same neighbors were making much larger offerings, and would probably have known that her small gift would be met with, at best, perfunctory thanks from the Temple officials overseeing the collection.

Why then did she give away “all she had to live on”?  She was not simply keeping up appearances or obeying some rule, “the Law” or custom of the time.  She was too marginal  to be noticed by those who treated their gifts as tokens in the social game, and probably too poor to be criticized by even the most legalistic scribe.   Rather, she did this because she believed that this is what God wanted.    God had asked this of her, and she had the faith to respond to His request.

Preposterous! you might say: why would the God who “sustains the widow” (as today’s psalm puts it) demand back the little bit of sustenance he had sent her way?   But in the first reading we see clearly that God does make such requests.   Elijah went to Zarephath and imposed on this widow precisely because God told him to do so.  Speaking with God’s authority, he demanded that this widow feed him the last food she had for herself and her son.   She had no idea of the miracle that was about to occur.  She was tired, hungry, and without hope.   Drought and famine had reduced her and her only son (at least, I presume he was such) to dire straits:  they would eat their last morsel and then die, two more victims of famine to be buried and forgotten.

She could very well have asked Elijah why he did not demand her better off neighbors, those with the wealth to buy food in a time of famine, to feed him.   But through the voice of the prophet, she heard God asking her to feed the prophet instead of her son.  The same God who asked  her forefather Abraham to give to Him the life of his only son, Isaac.  Abraham responded in faith, and she could do no less.

In the same way, the widow who threw two small coins in the Temple collection heard and responded to the demand of God for all she had.  She was, perhaps, strengthened in faith because she knew that long ago God, through Elijah, had fed the widow of Zarephath and her son.  She had faith that God would “give food to the hungry” and “sustain the widow”—faith that was stronger than her own bitter experience, which probably told her that the poor and marginalized often went hungry while their “betters” ate their fill.   And in faith she said yes to God.

So if our God makes such demands of a poor widow, what does he ask of us?  Most of us are, by almost any measure, substantially better off than her.  Do we hear God calling to us, asking us to give without reserve?  Do we hear the voice of Jesus saying to the rich young man:  “If you would be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and then come follow me!”   (Cf. Luke 18:22.) There is no single correct response to this call.  Some, like the poor widow, give all that they have.   The tax collector Zacchaeus, responded by giving away half his fortune—enough for Jesus to declare that salvation had come to his house.  The only wrong answer is to turn and walk away, sad, because our possessions matter more than God’s call.

Today, like every day, God is calling us, asking us, begging us to give of ourselves, of our substance and not our surplus.  Today, as He does every Sunday, God gives us the Body and Blood of his only Son, showing that He himself has not held back anything in his love for us.  And he wants us to respond in kind.  Most of us are not ready to give it all away.  And that is okay.  There are many ways to respond, and all of them are pleasing to God.  Today and in the week ahead, resolve to give a little more of yourself:  in the collection basket, to Catholic Charities, to the neighbor who’s lost his job and can’t find a new one, to the homeless addict who sleeps behind your office building, to the refugees from Syria we hear about in the news.   Take the first step in faith, and then take another.  God will be there for you as you do.  For Jesus promised:  “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).


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