Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Encountering the Holy Trinity at St. John the Baptist Church

June 11, 2022

Trinity Sunday
By Fr. Victor Feltes

I am back again at St. John’s this Sunday for the final weekend of our Inspired by the Spirit capital campaign and I have good news to share. Going into this weekend, nineteen households have pledged and their pledges total almost $83,000. From the actual monies received to date, our Diocesan Annual Appeal for next year is already covered. And if all of our campaign pledges are fulfilled, about $54,000 will come back to replenish St. John’s Building Maintenance Fund over the next five years.

That’s a great thing; however, this depends upon people following through on their pledges over the coming years. And things happen, so it’s likely not everyone will fulfill them. So today during announcement time I’ll provide one more chance to fill out or grab a pledge card to make a five-year pledge for our capital campaign. If our actual campaign monies raised over these next five years happen to surpass our $80,000 goal, 80% of that overage will return to St. John’s. Or if you prefer, you can always write checks directly to St. John’s with “Building Fund” in the memo line and we will deposit your entire gift into that St. John’s Parish account.

As I mentioned last week, St. John’s Building Fund was depleted by our interior renovation project which made this church of ours one of the most beautiful in our area. And what I love about our church’s new design is that it’s not only beautiful but meaningful. This design, like everything in the universe, is connected to the Most Holy Trinity. Like Sacred Scripture, our sacred art has multiple true interpretations.

Consider, for instance, the colors of the nave where you sit. Our earth tone floor and walls recall how St. John the Baptist, with suntanned skin and camel hair clothes, dwelt among the rocky ground and sandy hillsides of the arid wilderness. Our blue ceiling down the center is like the Jordan River flowing through the desert. It was in this wilderness where John the Baptist, on more than one occasion, pointed out Jesus to declare “Behold the Lamb of God! … Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In Latin, “Behold the Lamb of God” is “Ecce Agnus Dei,” which is the phrase upon our sanctuary’s arch. St. John the Baptist’s statue in our sanctuary points higher to Christ the Lamb of God. The Baptist said of him, “He must increase, I must decrease.” At Jesus’ baptism the Holy Trinity is revealed.

After Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, he came up from the water and the heavens were opened. The Holy Spirit was seen descending in the likeness of a dove and came down upon him. In our sanctuary, the Holy Spirit is seen descending over Jesus; Jesus on the Cross, Jesus in the Tabernacle, and Jesus on the altar. At the Jordan, the invisible Father—still unseen, pointed out his Son from the heavens, like the hand which represents God the Father points to Jesus’ Sacred Heart Statue in our sanctuary. At Jesus’ baptism, the words of the Father were heard: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

At our baptisms in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we became children of God, temples of the Holy Spirit, and members of the Body of Christ. St. John the Baptist leads us to this personal union with the Holy Trinity. Our blue ceiling may also be taken to represent the sky. Many churches of Europe and the Eastern Church have blue ceilings. The gold plants featured on our walls have old precedent as well. The walls inside the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem were decorated like a garden, with golden depictions of “palm trees and open flowers.” This is because God’s Temple represents a new Garden of Eden, where God dwells with the human race. Our Catholic churches, like the Temple, represent the whole created universe in union with our God in heaven.

The Bible speaks of three heavens. St. Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians of a man, most likely himself, who either in his body or out of his body “was caught up to the third heaven… to paradise, and heard inexpressible things…” What are those three heavens? The first heaven is our sky, where the clouds float and the birds fly. The second heaven is the outer space beyond it, where the stars and planets shine. But the third heaven is beyond them both, a dimension you cannot climb or ride a rocket to, the very presence of the Holy Trinity.

In this church, we are taken beyond the sky above us and the shining star before us into the presence of the Holy Trinity. In our church, through the waters of baptism we come to this altar of Sacrifice, where through Jesus, in union with the Holy Spirit, we offer glory and honor to our Father. At Mass, we give gifts to God; including our wealth and thanks and praise but, most importantly, the gift of ourselves. And at this altar the graces pour down from heaven and flow forth upon us and out into the world. The mystical river flows both ways. All being and truth flows from the Trinity, and all of creation is called back to God.

St. John’s Church is a beautiful church and its purpose is salvific. I desire, that centuries from now, Cooks Valley’s church will still be here, advancing the kingdom of God. That is why I am supporting St. John’s in this Inspired by the Spirit campaign and I encourage you to do the same.

Resolving Christian Controversy

May 22, 2022

6th Sunday of Easter
By Fr. Victor Feltes

There was a serious religious controversy in the very early Church. The Acts of the Apostles records this story which contains important lessons for you and me and Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in every age. In the first century A.D., some Jewish Christians came down to Antioch and were telling the Christians there: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Many of the Christians in Antioch were Gentile converts. As Gentiles they had not followed the many Jewish religious laws, including circumcision. Now they were being told they had no share in Jesus Christ’s New Covenant unless they kept the entire Mosaic Covenant.

This was a crucial matter: either these Gentiles were not yet experiencing Christ’s salvation, or else the Law of Moses was being needlessly placed as a barrier between Gentiles and Jesus Christ. St. Paul and St. Barnabas strenuously opposed this alternate interpretation of the Gospel which was disturbing and dividing their community, but how could this important issue be decisively and infallibly settled? Everyone forming their own interpretations obviously would not resolve it. How could the Christian community be sure of the truth?

The Acts of the Apostles details how “it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question.” A Church council was held in Jerusalem and after they had discussed and discerned the matter, “the apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose (a pair of) representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. (They selected) Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, (two) leaders among the brethren.

And they did not send Barsabbas and Silas empty-handed. The pair carried a letter from the council, which read in part: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities.” It then listed a handful of culturally offensive and/or sinful acts to abstain from before concluding, “If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.” In other words, the Gentile Christians would not be required to follow the full Mosaic Law.

Notice how the Church’s leaders, the apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem, pronounce their teaching with authority: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” As Jesus had promised at the Last Supper, “The Holy Spirit…will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” The Church’s leaders teach in union with and in cooperation with the Holy Spirit.

Note as well how they do not send this letter by itself, but along with Barsabbas and Silas. This is partly to attest to the genuineness of the message—it’s not something Paul and Barnabas simply made up themselves. The accompanying witnesses are also sent to clarify any ambiguities and answer what remaining questions the Christians at Antioch might have. For instance, the Council of Jerusalem’s short letter bids the Christians to abstain from “porniea,” which various Christian Bibles translate as “sexual immorality,” or “fornication,” or “unlawful marriage.” But what was the precise meaning they intended here? One of these things or all of them together? Barsabbas and Silas could answer. We see that even a text inspired by the Holy Spirit (as this one was) can require an authoritative interpreter to be properly understood.

When the delegation from Jerusalem arrived at Antioch, the letter was read to the Christian community and the people were delighted. Barsabbas and Silas preached to them, encouraging them, and remained with them for some time. The controversy was resolved, and the community’s unity and peace of mind were restored; for the Bride of Christ, Mother Church, had spoken, removing all doubt about what Jesus wanted them to do.

This, of course, would not be the last controversy in Church history. Every century since has seen its heresies, and every error gains some followers because it is so easy to be mistaken. Clever minds and willful hearts in a fallen world can go down many false paths, and when lambs or sheep choose their own ways to go they scatter from Christ’s flock. Thankfully, God has given us his Holy Word in Sacred Scripture to help us to know him and his saving, loving will for our lives.

However, the Scriptures do not automatically interpret themselves. Even self-proclaimed “Bible Only” Christian denominations disagree with one another over important questions. The Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura (that “Scripture Alone” is the sole authority for Christian faith and life) is a self-refuting concept because the Bible does not teach it. How can someone even be sure which books are supposed to be in our Bible without there being an infallible Church to recognize them and place them into the canon of biblical books? Without a Spirit-guarded, infallibly-teaching Magisterium neither the Christians at Antioch nor Christians today could be sure about what we are to believe.

The Church of Jesus Christ is not meant to be many separate denomination, but one. Christ’s Church is not meant to bring salvation only to some, but to all. And the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ shares a continuity in her structure and in her teaching throughout the centuries from St. Peter and the apostles to Pope Francis and the bishops today.

In 1926, when G.K. Chesterton wrote his essay “Why I am a Catholic,” he presented a number of reasons, but the answer of his which has always stood out to me is this one: “(I am a Catholic because it) is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” Some secular people imagine our present generation is the first one to get everything right, but in one hundred years another secular generation will mock and cringe at this one while embracing another set of fashionable errors of their own. However, in one hundred years the Catholic Church will remain, built solidly upon rock, and united to the Person and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Here is a final reflection from the controversy at Antioch. The teaching of Paul and Barnabas was right, and Barsabbas and Silas carried authority from the apostles. They were important witnesses to the Faith. But their message would have been undermined in the minds of others if St. Paul, St. Barnabas, St. Barsabbas, or St. Silas had not lived as saints. Our fellow Christians, even popes or bishops, may disappoint or cause scandal by their poor personal example, harming souls. But let us, you and I, rededicate ourselves to Christ, loving him and serving him, remaining close to him in the Sacraments, allowing ourselves to be more fully converted to him, so that others may know, love, and faithfully follow Jesus alongside us in his Holy Catholic Church.

Should Superman Be Baptized? A Thomistic Disputation

March 3, 2022

By Fr. Victor Feltes

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) is often considered the Middle Ages’ greatest theologian. His most famous work, the Summa Theologica or “Summary of Theology”, tackles more than five hundred theological questions, such as “Does God exist?”, “Can the good or bad angels work miracles?”, and “Whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defense?”. Aquinas responds using the disputational format popular in his day: first, strong objections are raised, next the author presents his own stance, then each prior objection is answered in turn. In fun commemoration of the March 7th anniversary of St. Thomas’ departure from this life for heaven, here is a question he died too soon to address presented in his classic style:

Question: Whether Clark Kent (assuming he existed) ought to be baptized?

Objection 1: It seems that Clark Kent should not be baptized. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He can even fly—like a bird, like a plane! These seem to be preternatural gifts characteristic of an unfallen creature who has no need for baptism.

Objection 2: The Protoevangelium (or “First Gospel”) announced in the Garden of Eden promised a Savior for Adam and Eve and their descendants: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) Clark Kent, however, is not descended from mankind’s first parents; therefore, Christ’s saving baptism is not meant for him.

Objection 3: The Second Person of the Holy Trinity assumed a human nature in order to save humanity. But Clark Kent’s Kryptonian nature is that of an alien race. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 A.D.) wrote, “What was not assumed [by Christ], was not healed.” Therefore, Clark Kent’s nature is incompatible for baptism.

On the contrary,You shall not oppress an alien.” (Exodus 23:9)

I answer that Clark Kent is a created, fallen, and rational animal; a sinful man capable of receiving the gospel message in faith. “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” and Jesus told his Apostles, “Proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” (1 Timothy 1:15, Mark 16:15-16) Provided he is properly disposed to receive the sacrament, there is no reason why Clark Kent should not be baptized—apart from him being fictional.

Reply to Objection 1 (that he’s unfallen): If Clark were unfallen, his mature reason would grasp, for instance, that sexual activity outside of marriage is contrary to the natural law. His transgressions (portrayed on both page and screen) reveal that his nature has been wounded by sin and fallen short of the glory of God, requiring Christ’s redemption. (Romans 3:23)

Reply to Objection 2 (that he’s not a descendant): Of the Savior, Scripture says, “Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendants of Abraham,” and St. Paul the Apostle teaches, “It is those who have faith who are children of Abraham.” (Hebrews 2:16, Galatians 3:7) Therefore, Jesus came to save those who have faith. St. John the Baptist said, “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” (Matthew 3:9) Nothing prevents God from granting the faith necessary for baptism to the Man of Steel.

Reply to Objection 3 (that his nature’s incompatible): The philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) said, “the higher includes the lower.” The title “Superman” implies that Clark Kent’s nature includes that which constitutes man. Though he can change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel with his bare hands, with just a quick change of clothes and a pair of glasses Clark Kent is entirely inconspicuous living mild-manneredly among humanity. He shares in every meaningful aspect of the human condition: joy and sorrow, strength and vulnerability, birth and even death. Our Savior himself exhibits powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary men; walking on water, calming storms, and more. Nothing found in Superman is beyond what Jesus can image and redeem, so nothing in Clark Kent’s Kryponian nature is incompatible for union with the Body of Christ through baptism.

How Far is East From West?

February 20, 2022

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today we praise the Lord with Psalm 103, a psalm written by King David: “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he (repay) us according to our crimes. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.” David rejoices that the Lord is merciful and slow to anger, not punishing our sins in the measure we deserve. God forgives our sins and removes them from us, “as far as the east is from the west.

Let’s look more closely at that last line: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions (our sins) from us.” How far away is the east, the place of sunrise, from the west, the place of sunset? Depending upon where you’re standing, your horizons may not be far away. But when ancient peoples walked beyond the next range of hills which blocked their view they did not imagine they had reached the ultimate place of the sun’s rising or setting. They knew that both east and west went on and on, farther still. What they likely did not know when King David wrote his psalms 3,000 years ago is that our Earth is spherical.

We know a number of facts that they didn’t back then, but ancient peoples were not less intelligent thinkers than us today. Could you, without using modern technology, prove that the world is round? Well, in the 3rd century B.C., Greek astronomers did and calculated the Earth’s circumference without using telescopes, photographs, airplanes, or satellites. So, given what we know now, how far is the east from the west?

Because the world is a globe, east and west eventually come together. If you were to travel from here due east while I journeyed due west, if we both kept going on making equal progress, we would meet once more near a border of China and Mongolia. If east and west actually meet together how are sins taken far from us “as far as the east is from the west” like this God-inspired psalm says?

Now some may say I’m taking biblical poetry too literally. A figure of speech doesn’t need to be painfully accurate to be true. We may know that each new morning comes from our perspective upon this spinning planet, but in ordinary conversation it’s not wrong to say the Sun rises. Or, in romantic poetry, a woman’s skin need not be made of real porcelain nor a man’s chin actually be chiseled for such metaphors to convey truths about their beauty. Saying the Lord removes our sins far away from us like the east is distant from the west is a straight-forward enough image on first impression. But humanity’s later discovery that these two opposites unite suggests an additional interpretation for this scripture passage about how our Lord takes our sins away.

Here is the puzzle God faced in regards to our redemption: how could the all-holy Trinity ever forgive humanity’s sins? If the Lord were to forgive us by merely ignoring our crimes, then what of cosmic justice and divine righteousness? There was a price to be paid which we sinners could not pay, but God found a way. As was foretold in the 85th Psalm: ‘Kindness and truth met; justice and peace kissed. Truth sprung out of the earth and justice looked down from heaven.’ Just as east and west were distant contraries which surprisingly converged, so sinless divinity and estranged humanity were amazingly joined through the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus separates us from sin by uniting himself to us.

What our Lord Jesus has done to save us is reflected in all of this Sunday’s readings. In our first reading, Jesus’ great ancestor David took King Saul’s spear and water jug and then returned them, thereby proving his goodness to his persecutors. Later on the Cross, Jesus takes the soldiers’ spear into his side and water pours out with Christ’s blood, proving his love for us. In our second reading, St. Paul notes the first man, sinful Adam, is saved by the new God-man, Christ. “The first man was from the earth, earthly; the second man, from heaven.” And in our Gospel, Jesus observes that if you love those who love you and do good to those who do good to you, what is so remarkable about that? Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to them.” St. Paul wrote to the Romans that “God proves his love for us in this: that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” We struck him on one check and he offered the other one as well. We took his cloak and he let us strip him of his tunic. We could not purchase our own redemption but Jesus paid the cost knowing we could not pay him back. “Indeed,” as St. Paul writes, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son…”

Jesus Christ, the first of the Most High’s children, is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, and merciful, just as his Father is merciful. He has loved his enemies, done good to those who hate him, blessed those who curse him, and prayed for those who mistreat him. He calls us to follow his own Christian example that we may share in his resurrected glory and heavenly rewards, “a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,” poured into our laps. Praised be Jesus Christ! Let us always praise and thank him – for who he is and what he’s done. “From the rising of the Sun to its setting, may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Jesus Invites You

February 12, 2022

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time

When we come before our Lord for the Holy Mass it is good to prepare ourselves. Greet Jesus present for us in the Tabernacle. Ask his help so that you may also be fully present and worship well. Also before Mass, form Mass intentions; choose which persons or problems you wish to be especially blessed by the graces which will flow from this Sacrifice on the altar. Having a Mass intention helps ward off distractions because you will not be merely a spectator—just watching the priest pray—but an invested, active-participant in offering his sacrifice and yours, for the needs of many. If you have prayerfully prepared for Mass and there’s still a few minutes remaining before it begins, perhaps look over the day’s readings printed in the missalette.

There’s a feature in our missalettes you may or may not have noticed: for each Sunday, the readings are preceded by an introductory reflection. The entry for this Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time begins with an illustration which struck me: “How would you feel if you received an invitation today to a simple but free meal, maybe a plate with beans, some bread, and a tall glass of cool water? If you are wealthy, you would likely refuse, for you know you could afford a much more sumptuous meal elsewhere. But if you are having difficulty putting food on your table and your family is starving, this complimentary meal would be a godsend.”

Would I go to attend that meal? If the invitation to this meal were addressed to everyone in the general public rather than a personal invitation specifically to me, I can easily imagine myself staying at home, most likely to enjoy some reheated leftovers. But what if this invitation came from the Lord Jesus himself, wishing to be our host and companion at his simple meal? Then who would attend? We would like to think everybody would, yet how many people skip Sunday Mass for other activities instead? It is very possible to overlook or to undervalue the invitations of Jesus Christ.

Unlike the famous Sermon on the Mount (with its eight “blessed” Beatitudes recorded by St. Matthew), this morning’s Sermon on the Plain recounted by St. Luke features four blessings paired with four woes. “Woe” was the cry of Israel’s prophets (such as Isaiah, Amos, and Habakkuk) who warned people of impending distress. Jesus says:

Woe to you who are rich…
  Woe to you who are filled now…
  Woe to you who laugh now…
  Woe to you when all speak well of you…

The danger is, if we’re comfortable, satisfied, happy, and at home in this world, we may imagine that we don’t need God or may refuse to make personal sacrifices we’re called to make for him. We can easily ignore the needs of other people, if we decide not to care. We can distract ourselves from the reality of our own mortality, sometimes up until the very end. We can dismiss our impending judgment by the holy, righteous God and refuse to change our ways. The poor, the hungry, the suffering, and the mistreated are blessed, in part, because they more easily see that all is not right with this world. They more readily recognize, they are more open to accepting, that our flawed hearts and sinful cultures need the Divine Savior, Christ. And that openness is a blessing.

You accepted Jesus’ invitation to his meal here today, and that is very good, but in what areas of your life do you still decline him? The thing about even a free meal of beans and bread and water is that this menu seems unappetizing, unappealing. Many good things Christ wants to share with us feel like that at first. We have plenty of free time for the internet or television, but do we want to spend more time with the Lord in prayer? If we take home $30,000-a-year after taxes, our individual income is greater than 95% of people on earth, but do we want to share as generously as Jesus calls us to? We see the needs of our neighbors, near and far, but do we want to offer penances and acts of service for them, serving Christ within them?

The season of Lent is only two-and-a-half weeks away. To what new engagement with himself is Jesus personally inviting you? Blessed are you who respond to him, for this is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who share his simple table, for he promises you will be satisfied. And blessed are you who accept Christ’s invitations, for your reward will be great in heaven.

How we Know the Magi Arrived Later (and What That Means for Us)

January 2, 2022

Feast of the Epiphany

Did you notice that our three wise men statues arrived in our manger scene only on this Sunday of the Epiphany? That’s because the Magi were not in Bethlehem on Christmas Day. In many movies and imaginations, the visit of the shepherds and the arrival of the Magi get smushed together as events of the same night. St. Luke’s Gospel recalls Jesus being wrapped and laid in a feedbox and speaks about the shepherds, but St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us the Magis’ tale with several signs that the Magi came quite a bit later.

For starters, the Magi arrive in Jerusalem after their long journey from the east expecting that the new king has already been born. “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” they ask. “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Once Herod had “ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance” and had learned from the Jewish chief priests and scribes where the Christ was to be born, the wicked king sent the Magi to Bethlehem.

St. Matthew says “on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.” There’s no mention of a cave or stable; it appears that the Holy Family has moved into better lodgings since Jesus’ birth. The Magi “prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” This happy encounter occurs at least forty days after Christmas. We know this because of a detail from the Gospel of Luke.

According to the Law of the Old Covenant, a Jewish woman who had given birth was required to wait a certain number of days and then provide sacrifices at the temple. For a baby boy, the mother had to wait at least forty days, then she was to bring the priest two animals for sacrifice; namely, a one-year-old lamb and either a turtledove or a pigeon. However, if she could not afford the lamb, God’s Law allowed her to just offer either two turtledoves or two pigeons instead.

St. Luke indicates that for Jesus’ Presentation at the Temple, after the completion of those forty days, Mary and Joseph were poor enough to take that second option, offering “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.” If the Magi had already visited, the Holy Family would have had some gold for buying a lamb. But Mary and Joseph did not have that gift because the Magi had not yet come. In fact, what King Herod goes on to do suggests it could have been more than a year later before the Magi arrived.

When Herod realizes the Magi have evaded him (for they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod) the paranoid and ruthless king does a horrifically evil thing. He orders that all the baby boys in Bethlehem – not just newborns but all those two years old and younger – be killed. This suggests King Herod thought the baby which the Magi sought could already be up to one or two years old.

The Magi arrive at our manger scene today on Epiphany Sunday because the Gospels show they celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ together with his Holy Family a time after Christmas Day. It’s interesting to learn about the Gospels and the life and times of Jesus, but collecting bits of biblical or historical trivia is not the point. What significance does the Magis’ later arrival have for our lives as Christians? One thing it means for Christ’s Church is that Christmas is not just a one day event but a whole season to celebrate.

What happens in our world on December 26th or 27th? Lots of people take down their decorations and throw out their Christmas trees. The Christmas songs played since before Thanksgiving disappear from the radio. Mentions of Christmas vanish from mass media because the opportunity to sell things to people has passed. Our secular culture uses Advent as its Christmas season, filling it with stressful hustling and hassles like Joseph and Mary experienced preceding Jesus’ birth. That birth is allowed one day of restful, spiritual, joyful peace and then the event is over. But for Catholics and Christians of times past, Christmas Eve is not the beginning of the end of Christmas, but the start of the Christmas Season. We are in that season now, decked in the liturgical color of white through the third Sunday after December 25th, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is next Sunday.

Beware of taking too many cues from the world of Herod, whose interests in Christmas are not pure. Let us learn instead from the Magi about celebrating this season. They come after Christmas day but are still “overjoyed” to celebrate his birth. They come to him, honor him, savor their time with him. They rest with him at Bethlehem. It appears the Magi did not come and leave in just one day, but were able to be warned in a dream not to return to Herod because they chose to rest with Christ and his Holy Family.

Living differently for Christ bears unexpected blessings and benefits. For instance, my good friend Katie told me yesterday that she gets a Christmas tree and puts it up on Christmas Eve. Doing it this way not only helps keep the whole season special but she gets a tree each year for free. (By that point, Christmas tree sellers are just happy to have her take one away.) Imagine no longer having to fit everything that is Christmas into the month of December. Like the Magi, you can plan trips and gatherings for after Christmas Day.

There’s still one week of Christmas left this year. Make a plan to keep it special. Play and sing your Christmas songs. Keep on feasting. Create some fun. And think of how next year you and yours can celebrate throughout the entire Christmas season. Like the Magi before you, let how you celebrate Christmas be guided by heavenly light.

Keeping the Faith During Trying Times

December 25, 2021

Feast of The Holy Family
By Deacon Dick Kostner

“Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?  Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?  Did you know that your baby boy is Heaven’s perfect Lamb?  That sleeping child you’re holding is the great “I Am“?

The answer to the lyrics just quoted from the popular Christmas Song “Mary did you know?” is “No! Not everything,” according to Pope John Paul II. She did not know everything at once and it is displayed in our gospel proclaimed in today’s Liturgy.

The morning I began to prepare for this homily I saw some very disturbing statistics from an article in The Wall Street Journal. Americans who pray daily was 58% in 2007, this dropped to 45% in 2021; Americans who identified themselves as Christians was 78% in 2007, in 2021 this dropped to 63%. This downward trend began long before COVID but increased during the pandemic. At our own parish we have experienced a substantial decline in attendance at Sunday Mass, especially family attendance. Other parishes have had similar declines.

So what’s going on? Our gospel displays to us the problem but it also gives us the answer to the problem. The problem is rooted in both mental and physical sufferings that are a part of the human experience. Sacred Scripture lays it out very well. Humans get sick, go blind, struggle with raising children, have disagreements with spouses and family, and yes the big one, death and when we pray for help we expect results not tomorrow but right now. All of these were experienced by Jesus the big question is: “Why?” The answer is a mystery we are incapable of understanding, but God did gift us with how we can get through these sufferings and anxieties when he sent His Son to experience these struggles and to supply us with the cure, and that is faith that the Father loves us, His Holy Family, and has a plan for us to follow and find happiness even while suffering, through His Holy Spirit and His Holy Family. The problem is our world has become secularized. Secularization is the process of removing religious and moral influence from our society. The significance of God and the Holy Family in our world is looked down upon and is been reduced.

Lets reflect on our Gospel this Feast of the Holy Family, and “Mary did you know?”. Humans are wired by our creator to care for and protect children we are blessed with. Mary was no exception and when her and Joseph realized Jesus was missing and days had passed panic hit them. They backtracked and found Jesus in the temple listening to the elders and conversing with them. They were upset and asked why Jesus had not told them where he was going. His reply was that he thought they would know that he was going to His fathers house. And then we are told that Mary and Joseph “did not understand what he said to them.” Thus we are given the answer to some of the songs questions of her that she did not know. But then we are told that Mary “kept all these things in her heart.” and thus she reflected upon her son’s words and she came to understand that Jesus had assumed she knew his vocation, to learn and be involved with public ministry. Jesus also realized they did not know this and felt sorry for not telling them his plans to visit his Fathers house, for we are told that “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man and was there after obedient to them.”

Jesus made a mistake for causing anxieties to his Mother and his step father and corrected his behavior and honored his human parents. This is the guide line for human families becoming members of the Holy Family. They care for and correct mistakes they make within their Holy Family relationships and its members.

Being human will carry with it sufferings. There will be mistakes that we will make as members of the Holy Family that will cause not only us but other members of God’s family to suffer. We are called to reflect upon our mistakes and make corrections to assure those we have caused to suffer that this will not happen again. We are called by God to place other members of the family of Jesus ahead of ourselves when we realize that others need our help and support as Jesus, Mary and Joseph have taught us, by reflecting on our actions and praying to the Father for wisdom and direction in helping our brothers and sisters overcome their sufferings and anxieties of life.

Like Mary, there are many questions in life we don’t know answers to. It is faith that allows us to trust that the Father knows our fears and anxieties and will answer us through His Holy Family when the time is right, for as told to us by God we are to look to His Holy Family and the Word for help and guidance and as far as fear, He tells us: “Be still and know that I AM!

“What Should We Do?”

December 12, 2021

3rd Sunday of Advent

Despite the complications of the heavy storm, the family still decided to come. They came to St. Paul’s Friday evening to have their children baptized: a nearly three-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl. Afterwards, I asked the daughter what it was like to get baptized. She answered, “It felt like Jesus was in my heart.” Truly and beautifully, that’s what baptism does. Through simple water and simple words, new Christians are born with Christ living within them.

Large crowds came to St. John the Baptist to be baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. Now this was neither sacramental baptism nor sacramental confession but a preparation for what was next. John the Baptist preached that he was sent by God to prepare his people for the coming of the Messiah. Regular folks, and tax collectors, and soldiers all asked this forerunner of the Christ: “What should we do? Teacher, Rabbi, what should we do?” And what really strikes me about John the Baptist’s answers is what John the Baptist doesn’t say.

He does not say, “Give all your food and clothing away.” He says to the crowds, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” He does not say to servants of King Herod and Caesar, “Abandon your posts and revolt against your rulers.” He says to the tax collectors, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed,” and to the soldiers, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” The plan of God is to change the world by transforming individuals within the world.

John does not send people on a complicated, epic quest. They can begin doing what they need to do to prepare for Christ’s coming immediately where they’re at. John instructs them and us to do simple things: share with the needy as you are able, stop stealing, stop lying, and stop coveting what others have. These acts belong to basic justice: treating other people at least as well as you ought to be treated yourself.

Can Jesus Christ call us from this to more advanced discipleship? To sacrifice for the Kingdom of God? To suffer for the sake of righteousness? To embrace poverty, or celibacy, or radical obedience? To take solemn vows like the retired religious whose special collection is this weekend? Certainly! The Old Covenant teaches lessons for walking in justice while Christ’s New Covenant goes further, as with the Beatitudes. However, we must walk with the Lord before we can run with the Lord.

Do you grumble, discontent with what you have? Do you deceive, not always speaking what is true? Do you take what is not yours to take, or keep what is not yours to keep? Do you fail to share what is your surplus with others in need? Then you know what you should do this Advent to prepare for the Christmas coming of Christ. Convert more space in your heart for Jesus that he may fully live in you and you may fully live in him.

Why the Catholic Church is Always so Behind the Times

November 20, 2021

Solemnity of Christ the King

A teenager recently asked me, “Why does the Catholic Church have ideas so behind the times?” It was a written question submitted alongside other students’ “Questions for Father.” The question reflected the young person’s doubts and I’m glad that it was asked, because after some reflection and with the help of grace I gave what I believe was an inspired answer.

I began with a review of some late modern history. In 1789, the leaders of the French Revolution took power in France. They rejected faith and wished to entirely replace Catholicism with their own invented “Cult of Reason.” They redefined the number of days in a week from seven to ten to deconsecrate Sunday – the Lord’s Day. They killed or exiled Catholic clergy and converted churches into “Temples of Reason.” They confiscated the convents and monasteries and expelled or martyred the monks and nuns, ending charitable ministries all across France. In their Reign of Terror they executed thousands and then turned on one another. Their revolution ended after ten years with a military coup which gave France a dictator who would crown himself their emperor: Napoleon Bonaparte.

In the early 1930’s, when Hitler rose to power in Germany, he was opposed by Catholics there. In fact, a map of the regional vote shares that the Nazi Party received across Germany looks like the photographic negative of the percentages of Catholic populations in place to place. The dark places of one map were the light places on the other. The Catholic Church proclaims universal human dignity, the preciousness of every human person, but the anti-Catholic Nazis believed in racial supremacy. They claimed the modern science of eugenics proved Germans to be the master race and showed Jews, Slavs, the disabled, and others to be lesser human beings. The Nazis arrested, deported, and murdered millions in concentration camps (including Catholic clergy, religious, and activists) and started a world war which killed millions more. Hitler’s “thousand year Reich” died with him after twelve terrible years.

The 1917 Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution of 1949 were violent, atheistic, communist movements. They heralded divisive class warfare as the path to utopia, denouncing and persecuting religion as the “opiate of the Masses.” The governments of the Soviet Union and Communist China, thoroughly corrupt with unchecked power, trampling human rights and freedom, are responsible for tens of millions of deaths over the past one hundred years.

I concluded my answer to that anonymous student’s question by asking the class to consider: if we had lived in France, or Germany, or Russia, or China during those times of social change would we have gone along with the spirits of the age? What would have prevented us from being swept up by and falling for their seductive errors? Our best protection against them, what would have preserved us, would be our firm conviction in our Catholic Christian Faith. The teachings of the Catholic Church will always seem to be “behind the times” because the world is always finding new ways of going gravely wrong. But timeless truth never changes. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Christ is the King “who is and who was and who is to come,” and our allegiance to him is our salvation.

For the feast of Passover, the 1st century Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, was accustomed to release for the Jews one of his prisoners. So when the crowds assembled on Good Friday, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus called Christ?” Barabbas was a notorious prisoner imprisoned for a rebellion which had taken place in Jerusalem and for murder. The name Barabbas means “son of the father.” So the crowd had a choice: which savior, which son of the father, which king did they prefer? Many Jews expected the Christ, their Messiah, to be a military leader who would forcefully drive out the Romans and rule an earthly kingdom like David’s or Solomon’s. Most of the crowd chose Barabbas over and against the Lord.

Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews? …[So] you are a king?” Jesus’ responses to him mean, ‘Yes, but not like you imagine. If my kingdom were like the other kingdoms you know, my followers would be fighting an armed revolt right now.’ Christ’s Kingdom is in our world but not of this world. Jesus called and sent his twelve apostles to proclaim the Kingdom of God and upon the “Rock” of Peter he built his Church to teach and heal, sanctify and save. The Church continues her work with Christ to this day. She is the seed and the beginning of his kingdom. She is “the reign of Christ already present in mystery.

It can be easy to get discouraged by the evils and errors of today. As faith declines within our culture, challenging times are ahead for our Church and her mission. But there always remains reason for hope. Even amid the great evils of Good Friday, Jesus was still advancing his saving mission. Always remember: if Jesus could achieve his saving work on that most wicked day then he can surely accomplish his saving work in our day as well.

Jesus on our Life’s Course — Funeral Homily for Helen Kellen, 97

November 19, 2021

Helen has been close to St. Paul’s Parish her whole life. She was born in our community, educated in our school, married in our church, and became a daily Mass-goer who lived across the street from here for many years. Today, St. Paul’s Parish is honored to offer our most powerful prayer, the Holy Mass, for the perfection of Helen’s soul and for the peace of all of you who love her. Her family has told me a number of things about her life. Certainly not the most important detail, but one which stood out to me, was Helen’s intense desire to win the family golf tournament. Her parents, Frank and Mary Seibel, began an annual family reunion which still gathers here in Bloomer. For more than 30 years, a part of these festivities has been a golf scramble at the local 18 holes. More than a dozen teams of four compete to have their names immortalized on the coveted family trophy.

If you’re not familiar with what a golf scramble tournament is like, everyone on a team tees off, then they choose the best hit ball among them. Each player on the team takes their next shot from that new spot, and so on and so on, hopefully getting closer to that flag on the green until they can sink a ball into the cup. The teams do this for every hole and whichever team has the fewest best swings at the end of the day, wins. The great thing about playing on a golf scramble team is even if you’re not that good your teammates can carry you, and you can occasionally positively contribute as well. Maybe it was growing up around eight siblings, but for whatever reason Helen was fiercely competitive and she very much wanted to get her name on that two-foot, family tournament trophy.

Here’s a theological question for reflection: did Jesus Christ ever golf? History’s earliest reference to the sport only dates back to 1457. That’s when King James II of Scotland banned the popular pastime in his realm, preferring his subjects practice archery instead to be better prepared for times of war. So Jesus of Nazareth, living more than a millennium before, almost certainly never played the links growing up in the Holy Land. But what if Jesus were to play golf now, how good a golfer would he be?

I suspect, if he were to play golf today, Jesus might be the greatest golfer of all time. He possesses an advantage no professional golfer has ever had: his human nature is raised to glory. Jesus’ soul wields perfect control over his glorified body so he could hit each swing exactly as he wished. Par 5? The risen Christ could get it on the green in one. When Jesus resurrects the holy dead on the Last Day “the victor will inherit these gifts” as well, as the Book of Revelation says. But what if Jesus would have played golf during his lifetime before his Passion, death, and Resurrection? How good would he have been then?

In those days, though he was divine, Jesus emptied himself, limiting his almighty power in accord with the Father’s will and their shared plan to save humanity. He had the ability to work miracles but he usually did not use them. When he was tired, he took naps. When he hungered, he ate meals. And when he suffered, he wept. So Jesus knows what it’s like to be one of us. He knows how we struggle. Even the best pro-golfers in this world usually miss their shots.

Being a Christian is like having Jesus Christ on your golf scramble team. The fearsome foursome opposing us is darkness, sin, condemnation, and death, and they would always beat us if Jesus were not on our side. When we miss our shots due to our weakness or our own chosen faults, Jesus can carry us. And sometimes our efforts actually do positively contribute to the mission we share, which is the salvation of the world. Jesus and his friends are the best companions for us to walk with along life’s course. And if we remain on his team without wandering off, or return to his team before reaching the clubhouse, Jesus Christ will lead us to victory with himself.

Eventually, Helen and her teammates did finally win the family reunion golf tournament and her name shares in the minor glory of being immortalized on the family trophy. But for Helen and ourselves, let us pray that our names may attain the surpassing glory of being written in God’s Book of Life forever.

Preparing for that Final Trip Back Home

November 13, 2021

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Deacon Dick Kostner

As we wind down on Cycle B our readings talk about the end of time. Our Gospel tells us that only the Father knows the exact date and time of this event but there will be warnings sent to help us prepare for the end. We know it will happen eventually but not the exact time. The point is we must prepare for the end of our earthly life.

Last month I left you with the mission to seek out wise mentors to keep you on the correct road to eternal life. I used one example I had received from one of my mentors who was preparing for his departure from this life, his name was Gabby Hassemer. I will use him again to steer us into planning for our own departure from this world. A couple of years before Gabby died he was given warnings that the end was coming. His feet and legs could not take much walking anymore, and his lungs were failing because of age. He continued to deer hunt with us but we kept an eye on him and we appointed him to stand close to our warming shack and keep the fire burning.

Deer hunting is just around the corner so I will share with you a true Gabby Hunting story. I remember one day while we were on the road to go hunting he blurted out that he was planning for his departure. Then he said: “ If I should go down while hunting promise me that you guys won’t stop hunting for the day. Just throw me in the box of your pickup until you are done for the day and then deliver me back home. I don’t want to ruin every ones day of hunting.” I started to laugh at his remark until I saw on his face that he was serious. I got rid of the smile and told him I would share his instructions with the other hunters. Gabby was planning his departure. Getting his bags packed so to speak.

As we get older we receive signs from above for us to start making travel plans. Age creeps up on us and then one day we realize that our bodies are breaking down and a red flag should go up that we need to start planning so as to have an easy transition to the next life. Let’s look also at our master mentor, Jesus. Look what he did before his death. He sat down with his friends, shared a meal and then gifted them and us with the gift of himself when he instituted the Sacraments which allow us to receive support and comfort from him as we prepare for our departure on the trip to eternity.

Several years ago our Parish was gifted to hear from a speaker from Lacrosse who talked to us about Stewardship. He told the story of how one evening he and his family went out for supper only to return to a yard full of firetrucks and people trying to put out a fire that destroyed his home and all contents including the family dog. He said it made him think about what is important in ones life which he concluded was God, family, and friends. If you think about it this is very true. Material objects we get to use during our lives and then they go to someone else to use and ultimately to help build the kingdom of God. As I reflected upon his observation I went on to conclude that God, family and friends are really talking about one entity and that is Members of the Holy Family of God. The Speaker went on to say that we need to include in our list of beneficiaries of our estate not only our blood or adopted children but also the people we have been celebrating with us and supporting us during our lifetime. We need to include those Holy Family Members who have supported us and been with us through all the struggles of life including illness and death, and who have been with us celebrating our Sunday Masses, marriages, birthday’s, and anniversaries.

It was because of two of our parishioners who died this year, that St. Paul’s is now debt free. It is because of gifts from parishioners that our Church is kept up. It is because of the wisdom and gifts of parishioners that we have a Pavilion which has been generating enough income so that our Parish Budget can stay in the Black. This folks is the Stewardship our visiting speaker was talking about.
What are ways this can happen. During your lives gifts can be given in kind or money to the Holy Family. In kind I would suggest treasures that have appreciated in value can be gifted and then sold by the Church. The result is that gross return equals net return because if you sell the asset 20%to 40% gets surrendered to pay the taxes, while if the Church sells the asset no taxes need be paid because its a charity, plus you get to deduct a charitable contribution equal to its present selling price not your cost. I did this with a collectors gun I owned. The Church acquired title and sold it and kept the proceeds with no expenses or taxes due. I received a personal deduction resulting in a savings of $9,000.00 as a reduction on my taxes by virtue of my gift.

Most of you who are 70 or older and have qualified retirement plans know that the tax laws require you to take a minimum withdrawal each year based on your life expectancy. Many don’t need the money to live on but are still required to take some out and pay taxes on it. What many do not know is that you can make your Parish contribution directly to the Parish if you are at least 70.5 years of age and not pay taxes on that contribution. The transfer must go directly from where you have the retirement account to the Church. I do this quarterly and am allowed to not pay taxes on that contribution. There is a limit of $100,000. per year that can be done but most don’t and won’t exceed that limitation. If you do this you need to let your tax person know as the 1099 that is sent to you and given to your tax person does not disclose it went directly to the Church or charity so it can be adjusted and bingo no tax due on that direct transfer. As to death transfers be sure that you give the Church assets from retirement accounts because they too will escape being taxed as the Church is exempt from paying taxes. It you give those accounts to your children they must pay tax on them.

There are many ways to make death transfers which you can discuss in detail with your lawyer or tax planner. Don’t kick the can down the road. Do as Gabby did and make financial and other plans for when you make that final trip back home. Bottom line is that you will be remembered as a quality member of the Holy Family who left the items they could not take with them to God, family and friends to use and benefit from.

Widows’ Gifts

November 6, 2021

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes… They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” Jesus denounced those scribes for their greedy hypocrisy. In recent decades, some televangelists and megachurches’ prosperity preachers have told believers ‘give your money to our ministry and God will bless you back with even more,‘ and then used the meager wealth of many widows to purchase mansions or private jets. This of course, gives scandal, leading many to think faith is just a grift and alienating people from Christ. Is it wrong for preachers to be paid? St. Paul defends the right of ministers to receive compensation, “for scripture says, ‘The laborer deserves his wages,’” but our holy work is not meant to be about getting rich.

The presence of unworthy motives among some Christian ministers is nothing new. St. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “We are not like so many others who trade on the word of God for profit.” Such men were a problem in Paul’s day, too. So it might seem that poor widows should never be asked to give and that poor widows should never donate. That answer would be simple, yet God’s truth is not that simple.

In today’s first reading, the Prophet Elijah meets the widow of Zarephath during a time of great drought. He asks her for a cup of water and a bit of bread. She replies, “There is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.” (She is preparing their last meal.) But Elijah says, “Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the Lord, the God of Israel, says, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’” She left and did as Elijah had said. And the poor widow, her fatherless child, and God’s prophet were all able to eat for a year. The jar of flour did not go empty, and the jug of oil did not run dry, as the Lord had foretold through Elijah. As today’s psalm tells, “The Lord keeps faith forever… The fatherless and the widow he sustains.

And in our gospel today, when Jesus sees a poor widow putting into the Temple treasury two small coins, which is all she has and her whole livelihood, what does he do? He does not try to stop her. He does not criticize her for being foolish. He calls his disciples to himself, he points her out to them, and he glorifies her trust in God in having given more than all the others. Her deed is still remembered to this day. Would it have been better if she had not given her gift?

I do not have a one-size-fits-all answer for how much poor widows should give. The Catechism teaches that the Church’s precept, “’You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church,’ means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability,” so there’s recognition that some people have greater or lesser ability than others to materially assist the Church’s mission in this world. But if even poor widows are sometimes called to give, to trust in the Lord and give him the chance to prove himself their faithful provider, how much more so are the rest of us called to be generous?

We live in the wealthiest country in all of human history, and yet most of us only give a tiny fraction of our income to church and charity to support the good works they do. What accounts for this? Some of it is from the love of money and some of it is from fear. The Book of Ecclesiastes says, “He who loves money is never satisfied by money, and he who loves wealth is never satisfied by income.” Some are slaves to their greed, and some are shackled to their anxiety.

As an early teen, I felt reluctance at giving any money away for anything. I thought, “Who knows what my future holds? What if I need that money later? Every dollar I give away now is another dollar I’m exposed to future, unseen danger.” My mindset wasn’t informed by the Gospel, but when I finally read the Gospels myself I encountered Jesus’ teaching there. He says: “Do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. … Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.” The Lord was calling me beyond my comfort zone and into a deeper relationship with him.

I remember standing in St. Paul, Minnesota’s awe-inspiring cathedral. It was my first time there and I saw near the south exit a donation box labeled “For The Poor.” The largest bill in my wallet was a ten or a twenty, and I both wanted and very much did not want to give it, yet I knew what I should do. Once I had done it, I walked out smiling. It was a small donation, but even then I knew it was a big moment, and it changed the rest of my life.

I recall the story of one married couple. They used to pay their bills and then give to God if there was something left —and sometime there was nothing left. But God put it on their hearts to tithe consistently, so they began setting aside their gift to him first before paying their bills. And when they approached their giving in this way they discovered there was providentially always enough for both God and the bills.

God commands, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test,” yet in his Old Testament Book of Malachi he says to test him in this: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, and see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven for you, and pour down upon you blessing without measure!

And so, without embarrassment, I ask you to be generous in giving, not only so that our church may put your gifts to good use, but for the sake of deepening your personal relationship with our good and faithful God.

Repairing Shoes & Souls — Funeral Homily for Gerald “Casey” Franz, 92

October 4, 2021

Sixty-eight years ago, Gerald married Wanda here in St. Paul’s Catholic Church. On Sundays, they brought their children here to see Jesus and worship. In their later years, Gerald and his wife became daily Mass-goers. Even when confined to home, he would watch Mass on TV, and during his days at Dove Nursing Home he was delighted to attend its celebration. Today, we gather here once more to offer our greatest prayer to God, the Holy Mass, for Gerald’s soul and for the good of all who love him. Gerald’s past occupations are not nearly as important as his faith, family, or friends, but Gerald’s all-time favorite job stands out for being rather rare.

Alongside Wanda, and then up until the end of last year, Gerald worked as one of our modern world’s last cobblers; not an apple, peach, or cherry cobbler, but a cobbler who works with shoes. Shoes are our lowest article of clothing, walking upon the earth. We see them everywhere we go; covering our lowly, vulnerable, and sometimes embarrassing feet. Some people say they “love shoes” but how much are we really willing to sacrifice for them? In this era of cheap mass production and consumerism, when a pair of shoes is somehow flawed or broken people typically toss them in the trash. But working out of his home shop, Gerald’s affordable rates and friendly face kept customers coming to his door.

I’m told that Gerald’s sharp and witty mind seemed to know every person’s face and name in Bloomer and Tilden; along with the names of their parents and siblings, whom they married and where they lived. Gerald would fix what was broken, patch what was torn, and through orthopedics enable people to walk. What might be considered worthless garbage to some, he restored. In this, Gerald bears a likeness to another.

Today, there are more people upon the surface of the earth than ever before. We human beings are lowly, vulnerable, and sometimes embarrassing. And when we are flawed or broken, this utilitarian world would often discard us. Some people say they “love humanity” but how much are they really willing to sacrifice for others? In our modern, consumeristic age some doubt whether God and his Church are needed anymore. But Christ and our Catholic faith are not antiquated professions, we need them now as much as ever.

Jesus Christ knows your name. He knows your face and your story. Our loving Lord knows absolutely everything about you. He who enabled the crippled to walk would fix what is broken in you and patch what was torn about you. The sacrifice of the Mass you are about to behold is Jesus’ sign of love for you. The Eucharist which Gerald has so loved is Jesus’ gift of love to you. I am confident that Gerald will be grateful for your prayers today, but I believe that the greatest wish of this cobbler of shoes is that you would always walk with the healer of souls.

Marriage is for Life

October 3, 2021

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In “the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” They are no longer two but one flesh. “Therefore,” Jesus says, “what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Jesus teaches, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

Now Christ’s Church does believe and teach that there can be situations where it is prudent and right for a person to physically or legally separate from their spouse. Perhaps there’s physical or emotional abuse in the marriage; destructive, unchecked addictions; or obstinate infidelity. And after the marriage falls apart the Church can investigate whether something essential to that marriage being a binding, sacramental bond before God was missing from the start.

It is possible for Catholic brides and grooms to fail to marry sacramentally in many ways. For instance, the couple might get invalidly married outside the Church; inside a courtroom, on a beach, or in a barn. The bride might feel forced to marry such that her consent is not free. The groom might lack the psychological or physical capacity for marriage. Or one of them might say the vows without not really meaning them. There are many ways a marriage can be sacramentally invalid and non-binding. And where the Church finds sufficient proof for this she will grant an annulment, permitting the man or woman to remarry. So as I said before, being divorced is not necessarily a sin; it does not automatically bar you from receiving Communion. However, to abandon one’s spouse without cause, or to remarry when you are not free to remarry, are sins that require repentance.

What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Jesus said this in response to a question about divorce, but what other things of human sexuality has God joined from the beginning which no human being should separate? God joined sexual relations to the covenant of marriage. He joined love-making to the possibility of life-making. And he joined one’s biological sex to one’s identity. God created them male and female, one man and one woman, not identical sexes—but physically and spiritually complimentary mates, and made God them man and wife in a covenant for life.

God’s first commandment in the Garden was “be fruitful and multiply,” and today we hear Jesus tell us “Let the children come to me.” His wish is to bring “many children to glory,” as our second reading says. God’s Word in the Bible celebrates having many children as a blessing, not a curse. Today’s psalm proclaims this blessing

Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
  in the recesses of your home;
  your children like olive plants around your table…
  May you see your children’s children.

Indeed, being surrounded by the love of many offspring is among the greatest blessings for the aged. But human beings separating sexuality from an openness to life distorts God’s plan and the society around us.

Contraception is not something new. It existed in ancient times. Genesis relates how a man named Onan repeatedly “wasted his seed on the ground” during intercourse to avoid conceiving children. “What he did greatly offended the Lord, and the Lord took his life…” Egyptian scrolls dating to 1850 B.C. describe other methods and the pagans practiced contraceptive techniques in the Roman Empire in the days of Christ and the Early Church. The Church Fathers, such as St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, and St. John Chrysostom condemned acts of contraception or sterilization. Even the first Protestants denounced contraception, too. Martin Luther the founder of Lutheranism, John Calvin the founder of Calvinism, and John Wesley the co-founder of Methodism all wrote against it.

All Christian groups were agreed on this less than a century ago. That is until the Anglicans in 1930 became the first Protestants to officially approve artificial contraception use for hard cases. (Thirteen years before, in 1917, the same group had declared contraception “demoralizing to character and hostile to national welfare.”) As is the way of such errors, the exception became the norm and the Protestant denominations changed their teachings. By 1961, the National Council of Churches could pronounce that “most of the Protestant churches hold contraception… to be morally right when the motives are right.” The Catholic Church, however, stood firm and stood alone against the spirit of the age.

At the end of 1930 and again in 1968, the popes wrote encyclical letters reaffirming the constant teaching of Christ’s Church about the nature, purpose, and goodness of marriage and the marital act; and repeating the consistent and ancient rejection of all directly-willed acts of contraception, sterilization, and abortion. In 1968, St. Pope Paul VI predicted in his encyclical Humanae Vitae that the widespread use of contraception would broadly lower morality, increase marital infidelity, lessen respect towards women, be coercively imposed by governments, and promote the self-harming belief that we have unlimited dominion over our bodies and human life in general.

According to its advocates, contraception was supposed to strengthen marriages, prevent unplanned pregnancies, improve women’s happiness, and reduce abortions. After decades of cheap and widespread contraceptive use, half of all pregnancies are unplanned, half of all marriages end in divorce, women report lower and lower levels of happiness throughout the decades since the 1970’s, and about one-in-five U.S. pregnancies end in abortion, with more than 60 million killed since Roe vs. Wade in 1973. When persons and societies decouple and oppose human sexuality to its life-creating purpose, many harmful errors follow. You can trace the path of one error leading to the next. We are now to the point that many people cannot even define what a woman or a man is.

I would be remiss here if I did not mention that the Church teaches that there can be holy reasons and virtuous means to avoid conceiving more children. Natural Family Planning (also known as NFP) uses signs from a woman’s body to identify the days in her cycle when she can conceive. Equipped with this knowledge, for serious reasons a couple may virtuously abstain from the marital embrace to avoid a pregnancy, while respecting God’s design and the dual meaning of the marital act.

Couples who practice NFP report growing in communication, self-control, and intimacy. They are more open to discerning and embracing God’s plan for their families and are statistically less likely to divorce. Not only is NFP completely natural, the information it tracks about a woman’s body commonly leads to the diagnosis, treatment, and cure of health disorders, from infertility to life-threatening illnesses. Unlike common chemical contraceptives, NFP does not cause increased risks for breast, liver, or cervical cancer; nausea, vomiting, stomach problems, or diarrhea; depression, mood swings, or lowered libido; and it does not cause spontaneous abortions (by preventing implantation of newly conceived children into the uterine wall).

Realize that NFP is not the Rhythm Method. The old Rhythm Method simply counted how many days had passed since the woman’s last cycle and was a moral but rather ineffective approach. Faithfully-followed NFP techniques have a 99% effectiveness rate, comparable to illicit methods of artificial contraception. If you would like to learn more about NFP, visit the Diocese of La Crosse’s website and search for “NFP”. There you can investigate NFP techniques, their science and their benefits, and register for on-line courses.

Whether or not you are married, whether or not you are past the age for children, I hope that you will recognize that in the chaotic, constantly-changing, errant stream of human history, is our stable rock for truth is Christ’s Church. The Bride of Christ, our mother the Church, calls us to follow her teachings from Christ as faithful, trusting, loyal sons and daughters. Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Do not miss out on blessedness, in this life or the next.

Does Jesus Have an Arc?

September 19, 2021

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games (2014)

When I was growing up, my dad read a lot of science fiction novels and he once made an observation that I’ve remembered ever since. He noted how science fiction stories always feature some futuristic thing (like cloning, time-machines, or space travel) but if a sci-fi story only talked about the technology, it would be boring. “Every good story,” he said, “is a story about people.” It’s true. All great stories, be they found in literature, television, or film, are stories about people – interesting characters living through events.

What do Katniss Everdeen, Sir Thomas More, and Paddington Bear have in common? They are all film characters with the same kind of character arc. A character arc refers to the inner journey of a character throughout the course of a story. A character may go here or there, and do this or that, but their character arc is their transformation as a person. There are three main types of character arc: Positive, Negative, and Flat.

Positive arc characters change for the better. They originally believe lies about themselves and the world, things like “I’ll never find true love,” or “I can’t be a warrior.” But by the end, they’ve found the truth, embraced it, and triumphed. Most of the stories you’ve seen or heard are stories like this. Negative arc characters, on the other hand, change for the worse. They come to accept lies and wickedness. Villains’ origin stories are like this. Michael Corleone from The Godfather or Walter White in Breaking Bad are famous examples of characters with negative arcs. Katniss Everdeen, Thomas More, and Paddington, however, are characters of a third type; characters who do not change.

Flat arc characters possess the truth and live it out from the start of their stories to the end. These characters also experience struggles like the others, but rather than being transformed themselves they transform the people and world around them. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, from beginning to end, knows that the tyrannical government is evil and is willing to sacrifice herself for others (as for her little sister, Prim). In A Man for All Seasons, 1966’s Best Picture winning film about a real-life Catholic saint, Sir Thomas More is a man of virtue who endures persecution for refusing to swear a false oath against his conscience and God’s law. And throughout the Paddington movies, young Paddington remains consistently earnest, honest, polite, and friendly while enhancing the lives of the people he meets.

When we consider the Gospels and the Book of Acts as stories (indeed, true stories and the greatest ever told) what kind of arcs do we find? What kind of arc does Jesus Christ have, and what sort of characters are his apostles? Though Jesus is born as a baby and grows into adulthood, though he ministers and is put to death as a suffering servant and returns as triumphant Lord, Christ’s inner self remains the same. The Person of Jesus Christ is divine, the eternal Son of God, a flat arc character who remains the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” He knows the wickedness of the world and sacrifices himself for others. He only speaks the truth and makes no compromise with evil, despite its persecutions. And his love converts the hearts of others, healing and saving the world around him. Jesus is the model, the pattern, the archetype, of every true hero.

What is the character arc of his apostles? The Gospels do not hide their flaws. We catch them arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. They still believe the world’s lies about who and what’s important, which produces the disorders St. James describes: jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition, greed, fighting, and slavery to passions, with every foul practice. But by the Book of Acts, the apostles’ positive arc has led each of them (except Judas Iscariot) to see that the greatest of all is not the ruler over peoples but the one who cares for even little ones. Jesus’ apostles have become new men, loving servants of all in the likeness of their Lord.

We human beings love stories. That’s part of why Jesus so often taught in parables. But why do we love stories so much? And why do we root for the underdogs, such as Rocky Balboa, Forrest Gump, or Joan of Arc? We love them because we are in a story ourselves, God’s great underdog story, in which you and I are characters. Our lives are important subplots to Christ’s overarching saga. We are co-authoring with Jesus our own character arcs within it.

Will you rise higher and higher in a positive arc, finding the truth in Christ’s Church, embracing the truth and living it out? Will you eventually become like Jesus and his greatest saints, who hold to the truth in a flat arc, blessing and transforming all around them? Or, following lies into darkness, will a negative arc lead you to final tragedy and disaster? If you are on this downward path, realize that a vast audience in heaven looks on, longing for a plot-twist which you can accomplish with Christ. But do not delay, for you do not know how many more pages of the book or minutes in the movie remain before your life’s eternal epilogue. This Sunday’s gospel antiphon acclaims: “God has called us through the Gospel to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Let us whole-heartedly play our part in Jesus Christ’s heroic saga, that we may also share in his story’s glorious happy ending.