Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Honey or Vinegar?

On Saturday, January 21, I posted the following as my Facebook status: "Confession is available today for any Catholic who voted for Obama. You are the ones who permitted any protection of our consciences to be trod upon by this administration."* One might say I was a bit indignant when writing it. After fifty-eight comments, the eruption of opinion ended. Several days later, J. Thorp posted a review of the Church History Primer, Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church. Therein he criticized the caustic tone of the author. That same evening I received a message from a former seminary colleague with a reputation (and a talent really) for his acid tongue and acerbic wit. He rightfully chided me for the imprudence of my remark.

The combination of these three events brings me to a serious point of reflection. First, given my role and the impact of my words, to what extent must I curb my tongue so as to avoid unduly influencing my people in areas beyond realms of my own as well as the Church's competence? Second, even though honey seems to attract more flies than vinegar, is there a time for vinegar? Third, is there a value in knowingly and intentionally angering a certain segment of people if one will simultaneously bolster another segment?

As to the first question, I simply concede that in the majority of cases, I do not speak where I do not think I have the competence to do so. Likewise, I generally do not publicly delve into the specifics of issues where the Church does not do so. For instance, while it seems clear that a Catholic cannot, given his outspoken positions in contradiction to clear and consistent Catholic teaching, cast a vote for Obama in good conscience, I would not venture to suggest who someone should vote for instead (at least not from the pulpit). I do not know what car Jesus would have driven, and I am not sure of the best means for overcoming poverty. These are within the competence of others.

As regards the second, the answer is easy. Sometimes I have to say things that fall harshly on the ears of those who disagree. Abortion is a sin. Artificial contraception and sterilization are sins. Sex outside of mariage is a sin. Living with a person of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or with whom you have no familial relationship is a sin. These are vinegary things to say, and to my mind, need to be said with clarity so as to ensure than no confusion can surround the issue.

The third issue is a harder one.

It is certainly no secret that there are a great many Catholics who seem to believe that they get to decide for themselves what it means to be Catholic. This opinion is, of course, patently false, and opposed to the very idea of what it means to be Catholic. The issue relates to the question at hand in this way, though: Should one try to gently shepherd them back toward the truth, or should they be cut off, cast out, or handed over to Satan as St. Paul admonishes from time to time?

To my mind, this is not an either or sort of question. St. Paul and the Church both see excommunication as a way of demonstrating to the sinner the error of his ways. Finding themselves cut off from the community, they realize that they have done this to themselves by their words and actions. Likewise, they are thereby limited in their capacity to do damage to the faith of others, to give scandal, to foment confusion, and to open the Church to charges of hypocrisy. While the question at hand is not directly about excommunication, it is about whether or not those who sow the seeds of discontent within the Church ought to be coddled, or rather, should they be shaken? Should they be offended? Should it be suggested with great passion that they do not think with the mind of the Church? In shaking them, is it possible to awaken their awareness that they stand apart from other Catholics, and that, like sheep, a man apart is likely to be taken by the wolves? Does shaking them kindle their desire to be in the center of the flock?

The issue is complicated further by the fact that many faithful Catholics feel as though their voice has been silent for a long time. They wonder when they will find a leader who will lead them into battle for what is True, and Good, and Beautiful, and Right, and Just. Should they languish for fear of offending those who disagree with them?

The question here is not one of Charity. One should speak even hard things with charity. It is not necessarily uncharitable to say, though, "If you don't like it you are free to leave."

This is not about politics. It is not about simple differences of opinion. I think the question I am circling here strikes at the very heart of Catholic identity. Who are we? Who are we to be? And honestly, I am not quite sure where to stand. I know where my passions lead me. Because my passions lead me there, I am suspicious of that direction. I know where my own experience of being on the outside has taken me. I also know the experience of feeling muzzled. I know the feeling of righteous indignation.

So, I guess this is ultimately something of an open forum. Thoughts?

* For the full context prompting my remark, go here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

St. Sebastian

Today the Church wears red.  January 20 marks the memorials of the martyrs Fabian and Sebastian.  With all respect to the venerable Fr. Fabian, Philosophy Professor extraordinaire of St. Mary's University, I am celebrating Sebastian.  he is the patron saint of Roman Traffic Cops, Soldiers, Athletes, Archers, and me.

At my confirmation I took Sebastian's name.  I was moved by his story of heroism and persistence in the face of the cruelty of the Emperor Diocletian.  His willingness to die for the sake of his faith was a profound example of  courage for me.  Moreover, his feast is celebrated only one day before prior to my own birthday.  I certainly didn't want to be Agnes whose feast falls on January 21.

At eighteen, I do not think I was quite sure what I was doing when I chose Sebastian.  I do know this for sure, though: He has been with me ever since.  At various times, when I have had to do things I would have preferred not doing (Seeing a professional counselor, taking a year away from my formal studies, etc, etc, etc) Sebastian has stood at my side lending me his courage.  You can read his story here.  What follows are various images of this patron of mine.  St. Sebastian, pray for us.

I have seen this one in person.  It sits atop his tomb.  It is stunningly beautiful.

I have seen this in person as well.  El Greco is harder to appreciate but, I find this beautiful as well.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

To My Boys on the Occasions of Their Confirmation

It seems to me that every man worth his salt desires to have a son.  This longing is hardwired into him from his creation.  Some might argue that this hope for a son, aside from man’s basest animal desires, arises from his fear of death; in a son he can be assured that some part of him will live on in his heirs – they will carry his name.  Certainly we are proud by nature, and some portion of our vanity is fed with the arrival of a son, but in the end, such an explanation seems incomplete.  A man can create a lasting legacy by other means.  This was, after all, the aim of both Achilles and Hector.  By glory won in battle, they would achieve a kind of immortality.  That I mention them here is sufficient evidence that their presumptions were true.  For what purpose, then, does it rest so heavily upon a man’s heart to produce a son?

 To my mind, the beginning of an answer to this question resides in the humblest and most noble part of a man’s soul.  When he is honest with himself, a man recognizes that despite his triumphs, his successes, and his achievements, he remains weak, sinful, and less than the man he knows he ought to be, less than the man whom at his core he desires to be.  As a result, a man hopes for a son who will succeed even where his father has failed.  He hopes that one day, as he approaches the throne of judgment where he will plead his case before God Almighty, he will be able to say, “Lord, I have been miserable in all things but this: I raised a son who has become a better man than I am.”  And really, that is the long and the short of it.  Any father deserving of the title longs that his son will be a better man than himself.

A priest carries none of the burden of providing for and raising a family with his wife.  The longings of his heart, however, are much like those of any good man.  He hopes for a son.  Thus, every man preparing for priesthood experiences acutely the awareness that he will have no progeny of his own.  If he is observant, however, he quickly discovers that God seldom takes without giving something in return.  Thus have I come to see that while I will have no son of my own stock, Our Lord has given me a great many spiritual sons.   I am privileged to say that you are among them, and it is important for you to know that I could not be prouder of you.

As a father of sorts, my hopes for you are much like the hopes of your natural father.   I hope that you will be more successful than I have been -- smarter, more generous, more loving, more faithful, more honest, and more virtuous. I hope that you will be respected. I hope that you will be admired. I hope that when you reach the end of your days you will have lived a life worth remembering. More than all else, though, I hope you will know with deep intimacy Him who has loved us into existence, and that you will be holy, so much holier than I.  I want you to be a better man than I am.  I have prayed that this would be so for a long time now, and I will continue to do so.  Already I am beginning to see that God has looked kindly upon this request.  Within you rests the capacity to be not only a good man, but a great man.  Only one thing will prevent Our Lord from accomplishing this work within you.  Do not permit your own self to serve as the obstacle that tempts you to substitute mediocrity for glory.

Bear in mind that manhood has little to do with one’s age, attractiveness to women, or inclination to drink beer and smoke cigars.   It has everything to do with one’s willingness to sacrifice, even to the point of death, for the sake of Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Love.  A good man always dies a martyr to something.  So must it be for you.

As I am not your natural father, I recognize that it does not belong to me to see you through each of the steps toward becoming a man. Because of the sacrifices he makes for you, there are certain privileges your father reserves to himself. Among these, it is for a natural father to teach his son to shave.  Nevertheless, as your spiritual father, I have borne witness to a less visible though equally profound and meaningful period of maturation in your life. As a result, I hope you and your dad will not find the gift which accompanies this letter too presumptuous. As with age, beer, cigars, and women, manhood has little to do with one’s capacity to grow a beard.  Nevertheless, there remains something iconic about a razor. To possess a razor of ones own marks a point of transition out of boyhood and into the true nobility that characterizes authentic manhood.   You are a good man, my spiritual son and the adopted son of the Father.  In due time, I expect that you will become a great man and a much better man than I am.  Beyond these, you are made to become a man of God.   For this reason I offer you a gift which, though perhaps mundane, carries with it the possibility of reminding you daily who you are and who you are meant to be.  Holiness, after all, is to be achieved in the way that we do the little things.  At the very least may this gift be a reminder of my unwavering confidence in your goodness and your capacity for greatness.

With much love and affection I remain,

You Father in Christ,

Fr. Tyler Dennis

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Merry Christmas 2011

The following was sent in response to my Christmas cards this year.


As Advent tarries on and the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord approaches, I find that the theme of my own prayer and reflection wanders consistently toward the notion of hope.  How utterly audacious it is that as Christians, we announce to the world that regardless of the evil that is perpetuated and the sufferings we must endure, none of these things can approach the glory that awaits us in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Over and over this season, we hear the prophet Isaiah foretell a time when the world will be peaceful and all will live in harmonious accord.  Most striking to me about these prophecies is the fact that as Christians, we know full well that such a vision is not just a happy fantasy.  By faith, we know with utter, absolute, and unshakable faith that such a time will come to pass.  God will make it so.  Indeed, this marvelous work was already begun 2000 years ago when the God of the Universe who holds all creation in existence chose to become a part of that creation and deigned to be born in the poverty of a stable and to take as His undignified cradle, a trough from which cattle were eating.  How glorious our God is!

Life has changed for me over the course of the last year.  In the months following my ordination two years ago, I found myself overwhelmed with the great mystery and power that had been entrusted to me by God and Mother Church as a result of my priesthood.  Everything was new, exciting, and exhausting.  These days I find that I experience very few “firsts” anymore.  The initial sheen and excitement of priesthood has now mellowed, and I find that I can savor the incredible graces I receive in a new way.  As opposed to the red, orange, and blue fireworks of joy that accompanied the first days of my vocation, I am now entering into a period of joy marked by a slow steady burn like the embers of a fire.  These embers promise to sustain me through what I hope is a long life lived at the service of the people of the Diocese of Rapid City.

Not long after ordination, I began to discover all sorts of new things about myself, including a penchant for hunting and fishing.  That period seemed to reach something of a climax last May with a canoe trip in the Minnesota/Canada Boundary Waters.  I would never have pictured myself doing such a thing several years ago.  Now I cannot picture myself not doing those things.  I am
looking forward to making another such trip in the spring.

On July 1, with many tears and a heavy heart, I bid farewell to the Cathedral Parish and took up residence at Blessed Sacrament Parish on the west side of Rapid City.  Now, several months later, I find myself a bit chagrined to realize how quickly and deeply I have begun to love my new family.  I have often advised parents that more children in a family can only multiply love, so it should have been obvious to me that the same would be true for a priest as he became father in a new community.  Suffice it to say that God has placed me exactly where I am meant to be, and even though goodbyes are hard, I discover that there is great joy to be had in new beginnings.

The Lord has entrusted me with the work of preparing forty-four teenaged souls for the Sacrament of Confirmation.  These are largely public school students, which makes for a much different (not better or worse, just different) dynamic than with the predominantly Catholic School students at the Cathedral.  What strikes me most about these students is the deep and abiding goodness each of them possesses as a result of the fact that they have been chosen by God for himself.  As with the whole world, though, the challenge comes with trying to help them see that goodness within themselves.  I find that I am filled with zeal while being simultaneously overwhelmed at the task of helping them to experience the depths of God’s love for them.  I am daily confronted with the knowledge that the most effective thing I can do to achieve this end is to grow in holiness myself, and I shudder to realize just how far I have to go.  And yet, there are moments where the Lord reveals small glimmers wherein I am assured that He is doing good work in the hearts of these young people.  Thus I find myself once again returning to the experience of hope with which I began this letter.

All in all, life is good—exceedingly so.  God gives me more than I deserve, and I thank him less than He deserves.  But the sweetness of hope convinces me day by day, that God’s grace will make me more and more the man and priest I am called to be.  So, I conclude simply by saying thank you.  I appreciate your warm sentiments, and I pray that God will shower you with every good blessing this Christmas Season.  Know of my prayers for you and yours.

Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. Tyler Dennis

At Last

This is a short post just to say that I am back.  We had a computer meltdown in the parish office in November, and in the process of getting everything working again, our tech guy blocked my blog with the firewall.  I complained, and he fixed it allowing me to read my blog, but I was not permitted to login.  I have finally gotten that taken care of as well, so I should be able to post a bit more regularly now.  We will see how it goes.