Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Post About Nothing

 
My mother hates Seinfeld.  Actually, my mother hates Jason Alexander and the character he played on Seinfeld, and thus, by extension, the whole program.  I cannot say that I disagree with her, though I find it somewhat absurd that she mutes the television whenever he appears on a program or in a commercial.  It is a show about nothing; they revel in this fact.  If one is going to produce something, it should have a point.  To whit, it has been weeks since I have published anything on this site.  It is not as though life is dull.  In fact it has been much to the contrary.  It is not as though I have no time to write.  There is always a spare moment to compose at least a few sentences.  Rather, I have experienced nothing particularly new nor sufficiently thought provoking to write about it here.  I do not want to write a post about nothing.

And yet, I find that "nothing" is precisely the substance of this little reflection.  I had a conversation with a friend recently, who bemoaned, as often my peers do, the fact that "he gets nothing out of Mass."  It seems as though many of my generation expect religious experience to be consistently deep, constantly engaging, sensually rewarding, and sentimentally provocative.  Religious experience, however, is not always all of or even any of these things.  Religious experience, in fact, is mostly quite dull.  God's relationship with man does not exist for the sake of man's amusement.  Just as I do not look to my food to be first and foremost a source of mirth, likewise do I not presume my spirituality and religiosity to be mostly a vehicle of entertainment and recreation (in the commonest sense of the word).

How, then, is one to understand religion?  In the Catholic tradition, it is understood as a virtue whose purpose is to render worship unto God who is the source of all being and the principle of the government of all things.   Its principle object is to offer Almighty God the homage demanded by His entirely singular excellence.  There is not a single mention of "fun" to be has in such a definition.  The thing about religion as understood this way is that it does pose within itself the possibility of monotony.

Thus, for one such as I, whose business is religion, I have had little new to write.  I teach, I preach, and I administer the sacraments, all in profound worship and praise of Almighty God.  These actions are, I suppose, quite profound, but they can be a dull source of inspiration for an author.  What can I say today that I could not have just as accurately said three weeks, or six weeks, or three years ago?  It is not that I find myself bored, but rather, that I fear my reader will be.  To have written more recently would have been much like describing the flow of a river.  It remains more or less the same from day to day.  Water from upstream flows downstream in a relatively steady progression.

Like the flow of a river, which over the millennia cuts a valley through granite mountains, religion also washes over its observer, incrementally polishing away rough edges and carving through the granite shell of the soul.  This process is surely not "nothing,' but it takes a long time, and it is not especially interesting to watch, except in time lapse photography.  I'll publish another post when I have more footage. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Homily About Voting




Msgr. Woster and I chose yesterday as the day to address the upcoming election.  I preached the following homily.  It was well received by many, and a source of deep anger to others.  Some have asked for a copy of my words.  Here they are:

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I have never liked math.  From the time I first began to learn long division, I knew that math and I would never be close friends, and though for a time we reached something of a fragile truce, it became immediately apparent to me that math and I were to be lifelong enemies when letters were introduced into the picture.  With all of the “x” and “y” and trains leaving stations, I could simply no longer make sense of it.  I suppose it was the fact that there were just too many variables, too many unknowns.

We live in a world today that is filled with variables, filled with unknowns.  It is an election year with Election Day less than one month away.  The economy is still awful, and many Americans are still without work.  Yet another war in the Middle East seems nearly inevitable.  At the same time, we live in a nation where, since the Roe v. Wade decision, fifty million children have died at the abortionist’s hand.  The culture in which we live is rapidly arriving at the conclusion that marriage is founded upon nothing more than a feeling of affection toward another person, and that its privileges should be extended to any combination of persons who experience such affection.  All of us look at these issues and wonder, “How are we to proceed?”

To my mind, the Scriptures today provide us with a way forward.  The first reading was about Wisdom.  The author comments that he prefers wisdom to riches or gold, and tells us that to be poor and wise is better than to be rich and unwise.  When we hear this word, “wisdom” I think we most often assume that the author is talking about some high degree of intelligence, or that to be wise is to be somehow brighter or cleverer than other people.  This, however, is not at all the way that the Scriptures portray wisdom.  Throughout the Old and the New Testaments, wisdom is described as the capacity to think with the mind of God.  Thus, for instance, it is wisdom that informs us that the most hardened criminal, the most vicious murderer, the perpetrator of the most violent terrorist attack is good.  He is good because God has made him that way.

When it comes to finding a way forward in our own time, wisdom has a great deal to say.  First, wisdom tells us that our actions in this life echo in eternity.  In other words, this means that someday, when we stand before God Almighty seated on His throne of judgment, we will have to defend the vote we cast this November.  Likewise, wisdom informs us that our vote is not simply about ourselves.  Because I live in a society, the results of my vote affect other people.  As a result, I cannot simply make my choice on the ballot because I am making less money than I made four or eight years ago.  I cannot simply vote based upon the fact that I am still looking for work.  My vote will affect the poor and the marginal.  Wisdom informs us that as Catholics, we cannot be single issue voters.  We must take into consideration all of the variables before casting a ballot.  Nevertheless, wisdom also tells us that there are certain things that can disqualify a candidate from our consideration.  An example of this is abortion.  Abortion is an intrinsic evil.  This means that there is no time, no place, and no set of circumstances under which it would be legitimate to procure an abortion.  It is always wrong.  If I vote for a candidate who supports an unfettered right to abortion, I become complicit in that evil.  I cooperate with it.  Likewise, embryonic stem cell research which similarly destroys a human being is an intrinsic evil.  It is never ok to suction cells out of a living child in order to put bit of them in other people.  To vote in support of such a thing is to cooperate with that evil.  

Wisdom teaches that there are other examples too, which, though perhaps not intrinsically evil, are nevertheless, profoundly important to Catholics.  In January, President Obama through his Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, mandated that Catholic institutions would be required to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives, abortifacient drugs and procedures.  There was to be no exception.  This means that Catholic Hospitals, schools, universities, adoption agencies, and social service agencies would be required to provide these services.  If this mandate stands, many of these institutions will likely close their doors.  Even in our own diocese, Catholic Social Services, who serves thousands and thousands of people each year, may have to close their doors.  I know there are people sitting in this congregation who have turned to this agency in their need.  On Thursday night, Joe Biden stood before America and told us that none of what I just said is true, that no institution would be required to provide anything to which they morally objected.  So egregious was this lie that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement the following day correcting Biden’s error.

By this point I know that many of you are livid.  I know that many of you are wondering why priests cannot keep their politics out of their preaching.  Some of you wonder just who you need to contact at the IRS to have my tax exempt status revoked.  It is not my job to stand before you and tell you for whom to vote.  I cannot tell you the political party to which you ought belong.  Here’s the thing, though.  Someday, I too will stand before almighty God on his throne of judgment and I will have to explain why I did or did not help inform people’s consciences.  I will have to explain why I did or did not help people to sort through the issues of the day with the mind of God.  I will have to explain why I did or did not help us all become just a little wiser. 
        

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Rise of the "Nones" vs. The Rise of the Nuns


With what seemed to be an air of knowing condescension, a friend of mine sent a USA Today article via email announcing that thirty percent of Americans now classify themselves as adhering to no particular religious denomination, and that fifty percent of adults under the age of thirty classify themselves in this manner.  My friend, as best as I can tell, would likely also place himself in that category.  

I suppose that the article was meant to cause alarm.  In just a few decades, I will have become obsolete, going the way of the blacksmith.  America will have advanced beyond need for a priest.  There is clearly a trend away from organized religion in American (Western?) Culture, and to an extent, this statistical reality is much in keeping with recent history in this nation.  The United States is founded on the notion of individual liberty, and especially from the 1960's onward Americans have resented any force outside of themselves that would presume to make universal truth claims binding upon the consciences of every human being.  Likewise, Catholics, until very recently, have only tepidly responded to the call to arms issued by John Paul the Great, when he announced the need for a new evangelization of formerly Christian peoples.  To my mind, however, the issue of the "nones" presents no new challenge to the Catholic Church.

From Constantine until now, the Church has had to deal with nominal adherence to the faith.  What is different now is that people are simply freer to approach the question of faith with integrity.  It suits me just fine that people who were never really Catholic in the first place should find themselves now able to freely admit that they adhere to no religion.  To my mind, the days of the "baptized pagan" are nearly over.  Early in his pontificate, Benedict XVI commented that the Church would get smaller before she got bigger.  In saying this, he was suggesting that in the name of integrity and of self-preservation, Catholics would have to abandon what, since the Second Vatican Council, has become a terrible habit of trying to somehow accommodate all opinions, all lifestyles, all practices, and all beliefs under the single roof of the Catholic Church.  

The word "catholic," of course, means "universal."  It is universal in the sense, however, that what she believes applies to all people of all times.  It most definitely does not and cannot mean that everything goes.  Interestingly, many young Catholics are attracted to this reality.  Parishes rife with touchy-feely, "I'm OK. You're OK." save the whales homilies, are populated by aging baby boomers who, though large in number, are closer to their graves than they are to their baptisms.  For several decades, the American Church has operated in panic mode, doing nearly anything to keep this crowd from leaving.  By contrast, for several decades, religious orders such as the Nashville Dominicans, the Missionaries of Charity, and other conservative religious orders struggled to maintain sufficient vocations, but the world has changed.  Today, our youngest parishes are also our most conservative.  Our growing religious orders are those most faithful to the Church.  Seminaries are full of zealous men.  Bishops are increasingly more conservative in theological temperament. 

In the meanwhile, mainline Protestantism has attempted to keep up with culture, acquiescing to every whim of the masses.  And they are dying.  Why should I give myself to an institution that simply reaffirms what I already believe, challenges me to nothing beyond myself, and places me and my opinion as its central focus.  I want a religion that calls me to be better, not one that simply allows me to be recalcitrant.

So,while fifty percent of my generation may have no particular affiliation, there are still fifty percent of us who are faithful, and we have grown weary of the gruel religion has presented to us for the past fifty years.  We want truth.  We want transcendence.  We want what is real.  We want authenticity.  We want a faith that asks our willingness to sacrifice and die for it.  The Church will get smaller, but as she shrinks, her zeal will become concentrated.  Her missionary efforts will intensify.  Her ability to preach what she has always believed without constant interior turmoil will grow.  The number of her active members who actually know what Catholics believe will multiply.  And then the Church will grow.  

What USA Today and my friend both fail to recognize is that 2000 years ago, after the death of Christ, there were only twelve Catholics.  There are more than one billion today because those first twelve, though small in number, were zealous and committed.  And they preached a message that made sense in a world of suffering, violence, tragedy, and evil.  The Church is not dying, she is being pruned.  That strikes me as a good thing.  
                  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Minnesota


I write today form the abode of a dear high school friend who now lives in one of the suburbs of Minneapolis. A couple of months ago, another friend and I determined that it was time to see a baseball game at Target Field. I checked the Twins schedule and found that they would be playing the Yankees (without whom there is no such thing as baseball), and we arranged to make the trip.

So it was that I found myself making the long drive across South Dakota on Sunday afternoon having finished my Masses for the weekend and making a pastoral visit in Rapid City. Traffic was light, road construction was intermittent, and the highway patrol was otherwise occupied. These conditions not withstanding, I did not arrive in Golden Valley until nearly midnight Central Time. Brief greetings were made, and all of us made our way to our various makeshift sleeping areas (The trip, I suppose it must be mentioned, was equally meant to be a housewarming event. My friend has recently acquired this home, and as she is single, has little call for more than one bed.). Taylor claimed the guest room with its accompanying air mattress. I occupied the couch in the basement.

Monday morning arrived blissfully late. A cup of coffee and a short drive later, I found myself standing in the lobby of my alma mater chatting with the two resident Rapid City seminarians as we awaited the arrival of Mass time. It was great fun to enter the seminary sacristy as a cleric. I held none of the mild terror that accompanied my visits there as a student preparing to read, serve, or assist as a deacon. I was an equal. Nothing is quite so intimidating, however, as doing anything churchy in front of a group of seminarians. I was only a concelebrant, but was still a bit nervous.

Mass having been successfully accomplished, I was escorted to a nearby Chinese Buffet for a quick lunch with the guys. Back on campus, I caught up with one of the heirs of the Wall Drug Store dynasty, and then went to order clerical shirts at the local religious goods dealer.

By the time I was ready to return to the house, traffic had already become heavy. Why are so many people driving at 3:15 pm? I had expected this to be a harrowing experience given that I have not driven in traffic for some years, but with a large dent in the back of my trunk and a South Dakota license plate, the locals gave me a relatively wide berth. I walked into the house with just enough time to finish my Divine Office before I was whisked off to a dinner of Thai food. Briana and I came back to the house just in time for me to switch cars and head back into the city for drinks with Taylor and a friend of his. This was to become an hour long distillation of all I detest. We found parking near The Ice House, and upon entering I was immediately grateful I hadn't worn my collar. There was a five dollar cover just to have the privilege of sitting in the bar which throbbed with babble of youthful hipster voices, the clink of tiny glasses filled with impoverishingly expensive trendy drinks, and the stylings of a free form jazz group on the stage. The last of these was the worst. The drummer was simply obnoxious. Loud, without any discernible method to his playing, and a giant ham to boot, he made conversation nearly impossible. The group itself was simply awful. At a certain point they played a modified banjo that sounded a bit like a sitar. This, combined with the upright bass, left one with the impression that they were attempting to combine the theme music from Jaws and Slumdog Millionaire.

The party we were to join was composed of two couples, one of which had recently wed and seemed rather normal, the other of which was the coupling of a mohawked, fang-toothed drummer and she who is the third in command of Minnesota's DNC. Trendy, Hipster, Loud, and Liberal, I was for out of my own circle of comfort. Thus, in a certain wicked irony, I was grateful that the "music" permitted little conversation. Just as the set was ending, we decided to take our leave.

Minnesota is a study in contrasts I suppose. Minneapolis and St. Paul are called the Twin Cities, but they are estranged twins. One is subdued, largely homogenous, and seemingly wholesome. The other is loud, wild, and diverse. Most of the state is populated by stoic workers of the land, but they are often overruled in public affairs by those who dwell in the cities. Prince, the Cohen Brothers, and Bob Dylan were all born and educated here. Michelle Bachman represents them in Congress. I am driven mad by the crowds, the noise, and the politics. I love to take advantage of the art, restaurants, and the learning the aforementioned made possible. It is good to be here. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

We Are Sparta(ns)!

Mischief is in the air.

This week has marks the celebration of homecoming for both the local high school and Black Hills State University.  Apparently the high school homecoming king and queen were crowned last evening, and a number of Catholics were in the court.  Today, the school hosted a parade down Main Street (the college parade will occur tomorrow morning).  Spirits are high, as the football team is on a serious winning streak, and they are likely to make a long drive into the playoffs.  Everyone is excited, and the kids are full of mischief.  (I saw a handful of juvenile boys with water balloons strutting down the sidewalk as I watched the parade.  Such devices can only be used for ill.)  The chant up and down the street was something along the lines of:

We are the Spartans/ the Mighty Mighty Spartans. /Everywhere we go/People want to know/ Who we are/ So we tell them/ we are the Spartans . . . 

I am a sucker for a parade.  I was somewhat disappointed to find myself seated behind a group of second graders because when it comes to gathering candy, they are like vultures on carrion.  I knew I was not likely to collect even a single stray piece thrown from the floats.  Nevertheless, I did manage to capture a few pictures.     


Middle School Football


Varsity Football


Second Grade Candy Snatchers


 
Marching band


Good Luck tonight Spartans!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

And All is Well With the World


Just moments ago, I updated my Facebook status to reflect the sentiment that titles this post. Thinking more about it, I suppose such a statement may seem incongruous at best given that today marks the eleventh anniversary of the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks, that nearly one in ten Americans is unemployed, that American troops still stand in harm's way, and that Europe teeters on the brink of insolvency.

And yet, I could not help but smile as I passed the bicyclists making noise in my back parking lot as I strolled to the gas station for a Diet Coke. I did not even mind the overly familiar clerk who insists on commenting on my purchases each time I patronize her establishment. After all, the night is brisk, I have worked hard today, and a mere one hour ago, the God of all creation bestowed His blessing over His holy people in his Eucharistic form before permitting that I repose him in. His tabernacle. There He remains keeping watch over us tonight and always. Bombs may fall, teenage tragedies may unfold, and nations may collapse and yet, all is well with the world, as we prepare to commit ourselves for one more night to His almighty protection. God has granted me many precious consolations in the last few days. Those for whom I have prayed fervently are safe. Thus, Rosary in hand, I prepare for sleep altogether certain, all is well with the world. 

Doing History


Our Intergenerational Faith Formation program (GOF) this year will focus on the Church's history.  As this was my area of focus as I was pursuing my Masters, I have been designated the primary instructor for the program.  I cannot say I am disappointed at the prospect.  As my thesis director and academic adviser was wont to call it, these six half hour vignettes will constitute a frolicking romp through the centuries.

While telling the Church's story is a task in itself, and I will be busy enough keeping up with that, a part of me wishes that I could carry on a sustained conversation about the nature of historical study.  What follows is an amended version of a comment I left on a post from fellow blogger J. Thorp.

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Studying Church History in grad school, I grew weary of most history texts. It was not as though they set out to be intentionally critical of the Church, at least in the sense that the authors wanted to discredit the Church. It was, rather, the bias of what is considered academically normative and acceptable. The normal and acceptable approach is flawed.  It demands scientific objectivity where none can exist.  It demands the suspension of belief in the fantastical, when the foundation of human existence, from the Christian perspective, demands belief in the fantastical. One cannot assume scientific objectivity in the study of history in any context, and this is doubly true in the context of Catholic history.

As in all else relating to the Church, one must always approach her history through the eyes of faith. Thus, to approach her history as though it were simply the history of the Roman Empire or some other secular entity about which we might conjecture with little consequence is to do a disservice to the Church, the reader, and oneself. I began to philosophize thus as I prepared my thesis and was reminded time after time by my professor that as a historian, I was not at liberty to speak as to the authenticity of claims that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared in Mexico. I disagree. As a Catholic historian, I can and do say without apology that Mary did appear in Mexico, that she did leave her image on the tilma, and that those who deny these things are in error. Church history, though not strictly a theological discipline, lends itself to the service of theology; all realms of theology require a degree of faith.

To my mind, therefore, it is commendable that the Catholic historian relieve himself of strict adherence to the principles of historical study to which his secular comrades ascribe.  The Catholic historian can, perhaps ought, reject the otherwise unquestioned academic categories that insist that historical data must be examined without recourse to faith. This secular approach has become so prevalent in academia, that to question the conclusions of traditional histories achieved by these secular means is to abandon academic integrity. In other words, to my mind, the modern academic historian, to remain credible in the esteemed eyes of the academy -- to do authentic history as defined by one's peer reviewers -- must always leave the Church with egg on her face. 

How, after all, can one describe the importance and significance of the Inquisition unless one first accepts the importance and significance of maintaining proper belief for salvation? How does one deal with questions of Holy Wars or defend the Crusades if one cannot appreciate the notion that God uses kings and kingdoms to accomplish his own ends.  One might go so far as to say that some of what the Church has done is indefensible without faith. As a result, I simply cannot countenance the idea that faithless lines of examination are the only reliable means of doing authentic and objective research.

The Church is and has been for 2000 years the continued presence of Christ on Earth. Though one must always account for the "Judas factor," the Church and her history represent the manner by which Christ is bringing about the consummation of time. Thus, it seems to me that of necessity any accurate history of the Church will attempt to find a way to show God's providence shining through human sin and folly. This is not a bias; The Church either is what she says she is, or she is not. If she is the continued presence of Christ on Earth, it is simply disingenuous for a Catholic to try to absolve himself of the obligation to look at history from anything but a sympathetic perspective. Sin within the Church did her serious damage. We need not whitewash this fact, but we ought to see it in the best light possible. Likewise, charity demands that we approach with sympathy those who damaged the Church from without. But they were wrong - seriously wrong. We should make no bones about that fact.

The Church need not always fall on the wrong side of history.  This objective is accomplished easily enough if the historian, like every other lay-professional to whom I preach Sunday by Sunday, places his faith ahead of his work.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Distractions


In the course of celebrating any particular Mass, the priest is certain to experience any number of distractions.  For instance, I am convinced that a certain number of Catholics have never heard the introductory rites of the Mass.  They generally arrive somewhere during the opening prayer or first reading.  Likewise, there are babies.  Babies should be at Mass, and I have grown largely accustomed to the chorus of shrill and full-throated unhappy baby noises; they are par for the course.  I am typically undaunted by plastic dinosaurs, Lego men, cars, and baby dolls making war along the backs of pews.  I remain unflustered when servers occasionally pass out, and I maintain my calm when the elderly collapse in the aisle.

I am utterly ill-equipped, however, to deal with clowns.

In training to celebrate the Mass, we were instructed that the priest should generally not look at the people as he recites the prayers of the Mass.  These prayers, after all, are not addressed to the people, but to God himself.  Thus, one should choose a focal point somewhere at the back of the church and above the heads of the people.  God is "out there".  It is Him to whom we are speaking.  One cannot help, however, catching peripheral glimpses of other things.

Today, while celebrating the Votive Mass of the Most Sacred heart of Jesus at a local nursing home, as I prayed "Through Him and with Him and in Him . . ." I saw a glimmer of yellow hair and red polka-dots.  I ignored it.  Then a glimmer of bright red hair.  "What the Hell is this?" I thought.  "White face paint?  I must have lost have lost my mind," I conjectured.  The people responded "Amen!" and I looked down the aisle out the door.  I was right.  The place was infested with clowns -- Crazy hair, big shoes, and terrifying painted-on grins.  Why on earth are there clowns in a nursing home?  Images from the film adaptation of Stephen King's It danced through my head, leading me to speculate that the whole situation seemed like a macabre commercial for euthanasia.  By the time Mass was over, they had disappeared.  I found excuses to wait around, hoping they would reappear for interrogation.  They did not. 

Coulrophobia n. - an abnormal or exaggerated fear of clowns.

Wailing mourners, shrieking children, and tardy parishioners are one things.  But clowns?  I cannot abide clowns at Mass.    
    

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

No One Likes A Funeral

No one likes funerals.  Even funeral directors do not like funerals.  They are a sad fact of life, and even with a profound hope in the resurrection, we still know that earthly parting is a miserable affair.

I have had a run of funerals this summer.  Three occurred during my annual priest retreat.  I have had four more since coming to Spearfish.  I cannot say that I relish funerals, but I think I do them relatively well.  They are not hard in the sense that they are especially demanding in terms of time dedicated to them or emotion spent on them.  After all, in a certain sense, I am called to be a professional when it comes to death, and to deal with death often requires that one adopt a certain professional distance.  This is not to say that I do not invest in the family of the deceased.  I really do make an attempt with each I celebrate to personalize the experience for the family as best as I am able.  I generally avoid the "Insert Name of Deceased Here" sort of homilies, though one can only say, "We hope the deceased is with the Lord," in so many ways.  As a priest, however, one quickly comes to see that deaths happen every day.  The tragedy death visits on any particular family is most often not more than the tragedy it visits on another.  For this reason, I think, I seldom tear up when celebrating a funeral Mass.  All of this aside, there are certain moments that cause the tears to flow.

By and large, modern funeral procedure has anesthetized us to the experience of death.  Funeral Homes prepare the bodies for burial, dress them and lay them in the casket.  Likewise, these same professionals generally close the casket out of the sight of the family while the priest distracts them.  There is a painful finality in seeing the white ruffle that borders the casket folded back into the box, the lid closed, and the lock set.  We generally avoid that experience.  For some reason, the timing was off today.  The casket had not been closed as the family assembled in the back of the church to prepare for the procession.  They stood by as the funeral director made all of the preparations to close the lid.  Then, because they were already there watching the proceedings, he gave the family the opportunity for a final word of farewell before shutting the lid.  Tears stung my eyes as the widow came forward to gently kiss her husband one final time and to caress his hair as she whispered goodbye.

Death happens every day.  And even having adopted a "professional distance," funerals are still hard.  No one likes a funeral.  

 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Solitude

"Christ Crucified" Diego Velasquez, 1632
Following my second year in the theologate, Bishop Cupich asked me to take take a pastoral year, which is something like an internship. In the course of my years of formation, he had asked me to do many difficult things, but this was the hardest. I had eight classmates, and we were close. Our brotherhood, our commonness of purpose, and our genuine affection for one another marked a transitional point at the St. Paul Seminary. For many years, it had been something like a dormitory for bachelors who wanted to be priests. Most of the men in residence, until we arrived, were second career seminarians. They had been pilots, pharmacists, realtors, farmers and the like. Few knew what it was to live in a community of other men, to depend upon a community of other men, and to be formed by a community of other men. In some intuitive way, however, my classmates and I did understand these phenomena, and the seminary began to change slowly into more than just a dormitory. And I was being asked to leave. The class behind me had not the closeness of the class I was leaving, and by the time I returned to the seminary, my original class would be deacons. We could still be close, but they would have stepped into a new realm of existence where I would be unable to join them until my own ordination. By that time, they would be priests, and once again, I would be left behind.

With many tears, I obeyed the bishop. I spent an extraordinarily happy and formative year in Spearfish (where I find myself a priest now) and in September, I once again returned to complete my studies in St. Paul. In the midst of classmates who did not much care for one another, left out of a class of men I loved, and classroom experiences that did little to pique my interest, I found myself very alone. I remember with great clarity that I would wander back from class, throw my books on the floor and sit in my chair, heart heavy, and exclaiming, "Lord, I guess it is just you and me for now."

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While recently driving with a brother priest who completed his own studies in Rome a couple of years ago, he commented that his first three years in the theologate were the loneliest of his life. He remarked that he had friends, and he loved his studies, but he was in Europe, trying to grasp a new method of learning and a new language, and he found no true intimacy amongst his peers. He too was left to abandon himself life alone with God.

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A young man I have known for a number of years, but with whom I have communicated often and deeply only of late has recently experienced a profound conversion. With a criminal record a yard long and all the sins of youth combined into the short four years of high school, God has suddenly and dramatically moved in his heart. He talks of his pre-conversion experiences of friendship. They were shallow, greedy, and utilitarian. He once told me that even in that dark time he was aware that though there were people all around him and though he was wildly popular, he was desperately lonely. Now, several months into his quest for a new life, that loneliness has returned, albeit in a different way. Having had none but the worst kind of friend prior to his conversion, he now finds it almost impossible to find the kind of people he really wants to know and emulate. He knows that to return to the old friends can only lead to any variety of moral failings, but that lonely part of him persists in suggesting that perhaps to sin is better than to be alone. Sometimes the lonely part wins.

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While a senior in high school, I began applying to be a seminarian for the Diocese of Rapid City. The application was long, and it took me months before I had completed it to my own satisfaction. I do not remember most of the information I was supposed to provide anymore, but I do distinctly recall a question asking me to articulate how my family felt about my entering the seminary. I had never given any consideration to the question. From the time I can remember, my parents had insisted that my brothers and I could do whatever we wanted provided we would find happiness in doing so. I took them at their word, so in order to answer the question, I was required to ask my parents and brothers what they thought of the matter. From that conversation I recall only one point; My mother worried that I would be lonely. Even as she expressed this concern, however, she reminded herself that she had been married more than twenty years and there were still times when she was lonely.

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Loneliness is a bitter ugly thing. Each of us is susceptible to it, and it can strike so suddenly: a holiday meal during which I am reminded that I have no family of my own with whom to create traditions. The end of a successful youth formation event or a series of profound confessions during which I have given my heart to someone and they have taken it and left to go home for the night. The sudden recognition that I am not welcome in some situation. The passing of a significant anniversary unnoticed and unmentioned by parishioners. A soft rainy night when the house is quiet and empty and no book seems to provide enjoyment. A touch, a look, an expression of pride between father and son that I will never give. Loneliness is a lurking demon, and his temptations are nearly infinite. Loneliness is linked to obesity - One eats because one is alone. Loneliness leads to addiction - One smokes just to be with someone else or because one has nothing else to do. One drinks just to have a reason to be among others. One does drugs to avoid the risk of losing the person who at the very least seems to fill the void. Loneliness is linked to lust - One wants to be connected to someone and to possess them so as not to be alone. Loneliness leads to sexual sin - One will look to pornography, to masturbation, to sex, because even if only briefly, one can dispel the loneliness. We watch movies, we take pills, we get on facebook, we crank our ipods, we surf ebay, and yet, in each of these things, relief is only temporary. Loneliness has but one cure - solitude.

Solitude is not simply the experience of being alone. It is certainly not loneliness itself. Solitude, rather, is the experience of entering into oneself and going directly to the place where no one else can go, to which one can no longer give clear expression in words, and which no other person can understand or possess. It means embracing the loneliness, savoring its pain, clinging to the sense of absence. Solitude is like a bruise on our flesh that, though painful to the touch, we touch anyway because we somehow like the pain. Solitude means probing the isolation, the longing for another, the longing for connection, finding no one there, and staying there anyway. We do this because in a mysterious way, God is present precisely in our acknowledgement that He is absent. We are not with Him, but somehow, the realization that we are not with Him is also the realization that He is deeply present, because to be utterly alone is to be alone with God. In a certain way, this what it is to be a believer; that except for God, I am alone in this world. Thus, even in the best of relationships, there must be a place of solitude. In the person I love the most, there exists a place where even I may not enter; to love most deeply is to permit that we might be alone with God together.

To my mind, this mysterious solitude was captured in an exceptional way by the Spanish artist, Diego Velasquez. Notice the depth of the black background upon which his crucifix is painted. No light comes from behind. There is only the Cross and Our Lord's mutilated body upon it. He is utterly alone. None is there to see Him bleed. None is there to see His pain. None is there to understand His grief. None is there to console Him as He cries, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me." None is there to tell Him He is not alone. There are none but He and the Father who is present only in the experience of his absence.

It is here, having faced the loneliness and having embraced its ugly bitter thorns that we arrive at solitude. It is here that we find God.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Running So As To Win

1 Corinthian 9:24-25
Among the many blessings I am finding in my new parish is the ability to reconnect with a handful of college (and slightly post-college) men and women from Spearfish with whom I have had various forms of interaction over the past several years.  Some were confreres in World Youth Day adventures, others I have known through the diocesan Duc in Altum program, and still others have been volunteers at Totus Tuus camps and the like.

A few nights ago, I had the opportunity to share a lengthy conversation with one of these young men.  It was deeply refreshing.  The dialogue was adult, intelligent (especially my portion of it), concerned with significant matters, and imbued with the perspective of faith.  It was like drinking cold water on a hot day.  By the end of the night we had moved from speculation about the association between poverty and joy to the nature of human dignity to discernment of ones vocation to health care in the United States to the nature of dysfunction in families, and finally to the question of how one must at the same time learn to be satisfied with oneself while simultaneously desiring to become saintly.  I have been thinking about that final question a great deal.

We are endowed with profound dignity.  First and foremost, we have been created in God's image and likeness.  This fact alone bestows upon us worth beyond any other part of creation.  God, however, is not satisfied that we should just be like Him as a result of our creation.  Thus, through Jesus Christ, at the time of our baptism, we are adopted as the Sons of God.  In Baptism, we are made sharers in His passion, death, and resurrection.  It is given to our souls to bear the imprint of Christ.  From these, we become citizens of Heaven, and what is more, we become princes of the Kingdom of God.  Because we have become members of a royal court, our dignity demands that we receive nothing less than the very best life has to offer.  Thus, we are able to say with great impunity that sin is beneath our dignity; it is less than what we have come to deserve as a result of the action of grace in our lives. 

Recognizing God's mercy in having elevated us to such great dignity, we are likewise forced to confront our wretchedness.  I cannot know God's love for me unless I first confront how little I deserve it.  I commit a thousand little acts every day that bespeak my own pitiable state.  In coming to recognize the poor state of affairs in which I find myself, I am left with two options:  I might choose to abandon hope, knowing my own miserableness.  I might choose to give myself over to a life of wretchedness and sin, believing I deserve no better.  Each of us knows someone in whom this despair exists or has existed.  In an alternative scenario, though, to see my own sin clearly and in light of God's love for me might also move me to a profound experience of gratitude.  I might discover that I deserve the very best in life precisely because God has determined that I deserve the very best in life.  It has nothing to do with my capacity to be good.  It has nothing to do with my ability to accomplish this task or that.  It has nothing to do with my human faculties at all.  I have nothing to prove.  I am good because God has deigned to call me good, and to choose me for himself.  I deserve good because he suffered and died that I might have it. 

This is a dangerous proposition on the Lord's part.  If I choose despair, He must, in justice, allow me to pursue the ill that will follow as a result.  But, if I choose His love in freedom, I become free to be the person He has made me to be, and He has won the victory for me.

Given each of these facts, we arrive at the question at hand.  How do I deal with the fact that though I know who I have been made to be, I continue to exist in the reality of my own brokenness, my sinfulness, my weakness, and my folly.  How do I deal with the fact that I am imperfect without returning to the possibility of despair or becoming neurotic?  How to address my humanness?  To my mind, at least in theory, the answer is relatively simple:  God has given everything to me.  Nothing I have to offer is sufficient for repayment.  As a result, I must offer everything that I have.  That means that even though I am sinful, even though I am broken, even though I am a fool, I cannot cling to these things.  I must make an offering of my entire self in return to the Lord.  If I am doing this, if I am not intentionally grasping after those things that prevent me from becoming the man God has created me to be, I am giving as I should.  Perhaps another way to say this is that while I admit my sinfulness and strive continually to overcome it, I do not allow myself to be defined by it.  I recognize that I am more than the sum of my faults, and I have the patience and wisdom to admit that I am a work in progress.  I do not simply submit to my sin, surrendering to the assumption that it will always be with me, but I am also gentle enough to know that to become holy takes time.

The balance is delicate.  I fight myself daily on the one hand, while consoling myself daily on the other.  This is what virtue is, after all - to pursue excellence, understanding that excellence is the mean between two extremes, but never mediocrity.  Thus, I do not give up.  As St. Paul encourages, I run so as to win.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A New Abode


I am finally in Spearfish.  I have to say that even though the leaving was hard, I am grateful to be "back to work."  Having known for two months that I would be leaving Rapid City, and having already completed most of my major projects for the year, I did a great deal of loafing about.  Loafing can be fun for a little while, but it becomes tedious.  One begins to feel like a burden to others.  Finding oneself bored, one looks to others for entertainment.  They grow weary after a time.  It is better to be busy.

The nice thing about a move is that it marks a new beginning -  a starting over place.  I have needed that.  I have gotten sloppy and lazy about my prayer, about my self-care, and these sorts of things.  Now is a good time to reform and develop better habits.  It is also nice to be able to say about certain things, "That's not my problem anymore."  Deo gratias!

Mostly though, to move is a time to lean into the Lord and His love.  It is a time to be reminded that I have a new abode, but He abides.



Sunday, June 17, 2012

Things I Learned From My Dad


1) Be honest. You can't cheat an honest man, and a liar is worse than a thief.

2) There is no shame in any work if it is work that is well done.

3) People are people most everywhere you go. Do not be afraid to try to get to know them. Chances are that you will like them.

4) Help your neighbors when they need it without expectation of repayment.

5) Wrestle with God if you must, but know that He will win.

6) If your brother is in a fight, help him if he cannot win alone.

7) Always take a coat.

8) Be punctual.

9) It is good to be independent, but sometimes it just makes sense to pay someone to do the job for you.

10) Marriage is permanent.

11) Don't kick a man when he is down.

12) Be more critical of your own work than that of others.

13) Avoid dropping tools down a well.

14) Certain vocabulary may be appropriate in one context while it is not in another.

15) Change is inevitable. Don't cling to things as they were.


Happy Father's Day, Dad!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Who am I?

This was my first and remains my favorite bulletin cover from my time at Blessed Sacrament. It also marks the last in this series from the archives.

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When Pauline reminded me that it was my turn to write the bulletin cover, Fr. Brian mentioned that it might be a good idea to say a little about myself. That recommendation, along with the recent ordination of Fr. Sparks and my memories of my ordination two years ago prompted me to reflect: Who am I?

The biographical details of my life are simple enough. I was born the oldest of three brothers and the son of a rancher in Central Meade County. I attended a country school until eighth grade before moving to the big town of Wall where I graduated in 1999. I entered the minor seminary in Winona, Minnesota immediately out of high school, and later attended the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota for my immediate preparations for ordination. Along the way, I acquired a decent grasp of the Spanish language, a penchant for writing, an infatuation with pheasant hunting, and a taste for fresh-caught trout. These details, though true, fail to get to the root of the question, “Who am I?” To answer that requires a bit more deliberation.

Fundamentally, I am a priest of Jesus Christ. By him, I was chosen to serve as another Christ for his people in the Diocese of Rapid City. By his grace, received through the imposition of Bishop Cupich’s hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit on the day of my ordination, I was commissioned to express for God’s people the same love that Christ demonstrated on the cross. I am called to do this in many ways: through my preaching, through the administration of the sacraments, and through my prayers with and for you. The most significant thing that I do, however, is my faithful celebration of theEucharist. Each time I celebrate Mass, in a very special way, I am able to make the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross present once again for the salvation of the world. In that moment, I bring the sacrifice of every Catholic, especially those present at the Mass, and I offer them in thanksgiving to the Father. In return, through the worthy reception of Holy Communion the Father unites us to his Son, and in doing so, unites us to one another in bonds of peace and love even more profound that those shared between parent and child. This, at the very root of it, is who I am.

And yet I am first to admit that the expanse between the ideal of my vocation and the reality of it lived in my life is quite vast sometimes. I do not always live my priesthood perfectly ,nor even sometimes well. Regardless of that fact, from now until eternity, I am called to love God and to love his people as Christ loved them. I mention all of this simply to say that in the time I spend in this parish, I will strive to love you with the heart of Christ, and I will make every effort togive my life for you just as Christ gave his life for each of us.

I hope that you will often remind me of this promise. I hope that you will insist that I be holy. I hope that you will demand from me the very best I have to give. In the meanwhile, I will do the same for you. God willing, by the time I have reached the end of my tenure in this parish, we will all find that we are a great deal closer to Heaven.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thoughts on Reverence


From the weekend after First Holy Communion in the parish . . . 

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Celebrating the sacraments with children and young people is always an event accompanied by joy for me.  It is beautiful to witness them encounter the Lord in such powerful ways.  A particular joy is seeing the happiness and reverence with which children receive their First Holy Communion.  You can tell that they are really trying to do it correctly.  I think that we can all learn something from that experience.

Those receiving First Holy communion must learn how they ought to receive the Eucharist.  The Church instructs us that there are two methods available to us.  The most common is reception of Holy Communion on the hand.  This option, while ancient in origin, was not practiced in the Church for centuries.  It was restored following the Second Vatican Council.  When receiving the Eucharist on the hand, we are instructed to place one hand beneath the other and cup the uppermost hand slightly so as to fashion a sort of throne upon which the priest or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may place the host.  The priest is instructed to say, “The Body of Christ,” while the recipient is instructed to respond, “Amen.”  After the host is placed on the hand, the recipient uses the fingers of his bottom hand to gently grasp the host and place it in his mouth for consumption.  He does not plop it into his mouth as though he were swallowing an aspirin.  Afterwards, the recipient should examine his hands to ensure that no fragments of the consecrated host remain.  If there are fragments, these should also be collected and consumed.  It is gravely irreverent to shake or wipe these fragments onto the floor.

If a person is unable to receive Holy Communion in the manner described above, his other option is to receive the host directly on the tongue.  This practice is also of ancient origin, and was instituted so as prevent any sacrilege against the Eucharist from occurring.  In this practice, one approaches the priest or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion in the usual manner, and after responding “Amen,” opens his mouth and extends his tongue slightly so that the consecrated host may be placed directly on the tongue.  

While Mother Church expresses no preference for either of these options, it should be noted that these are the only options.  If one is unable to receive the Eucharist with both hands, as, for instance, when carrying a child, one should receive directly on the tongue.  Likewise, if one cannot use his bottom hand to transfer the consecrated host from his hand to his mouth, he should also opt to receive on the tongue.

Again, the Church does not express a preference for either option.  I would simply note that prior to my ordination, I chose to receive on the tongue.  I did this for several reasons: There were no fragments left in my hand.  It required humility of me to allow a priest to place the Consecrated Host on my tongue.  It ensured that I would not be responsible for accidentally dropping Our Lord’s Sacred Body.  While it is a practice that was awkward for me at first, I found it to be deeply spiritually fruitful after time.

In either case, this point should be remembered.  When approaching the altar for Holy Communion, we always receive.  We do not dare to take the Eucharist.  It is something given to us.  We do not grasp it from Him.  We must never presume to grab the host from the person distributing it.  Following the example of our new communicants, perhaps we can all be a bit more observant in trying to receive the Eucharist more reverently and properly.