I’m not perfect, so why aren’t you?

As a pastor I find I have many different types of people to shepherd. Some are proud, and some have no self-esteem. Some are weak, and some are strong. Sojesus-good-shepherdme are trying very hard to be the best they can be, and some are convinced they are already perfect. It’s not easy. I have to love all of them and shepherd each one as his or her needs require. For some that means offering encouragement and lifting them up. For others, it means awakening in them the realization that they need to change. Some need to face the consequences of their choices, and some need to move beyond them. If I am to be a faithful shepherd, I need to know each sheep individually and what they are dealing with, and the more I know about them, the better I can help them. There is no one magic approach that will heal everyone.

One of the biggest challenges I face is trying my best to see where each person is on that journey and how to help them go further. I must confess that it is not always easy. I am not always sure where someone is on the journey. I can best help my people by knowing who they truly are, warts and all. If I know what is really going on in their hearts, perhaps I can say something specific that will make a difference. Without this knowledge, I can only offer general platitudes.

Some people can be frustrating, especially those who see no need for any further growth. They think they are perfectly fine just where they are. That group includes the two extremes: those who don’t worship God because they think their life is just fine and don’t think they need him, and those who think they have arrived at perfection and have no need for any further growth. I find both of those groups difficult because they will not be guided; they don’t need any help. The people in between are where the real graces happen, with those who see the need for growth and want to be helped. Their weaknesses and needs may be as far apart as the tundra is from the tropics, but as long as they want to be better, there will be growth toward God.

Lately I have come across a trend, especially in newcomers to the faith and in people who have become painfully aware of their sinfulness: even if they have been forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they still tend to view those who have been there before them as better than they, and they don’t feel worthy to be counted among them. I can imagine St. Paul going through that when he first met Peter, James, and John. After all, Paul had persecuted the faith and was trying to destroy it until Jesus converted him in dramatic fashion on the way to Damascus. With all of his sinful past, how could he now be counted as equals with the Apostles? But Peter denied Jesus three times, and James and John wanted to sit at Jesus’ right and left in His glory. They were not without sin. Every saint has his past, and every sinner has his future. Jesus has an uncanny ability to see past our weaknesses to the good we can do when we realize He knows all too well our sins and allow Him to work through us in spite of – perhaps even because of – our sinfulness. As St. Paul says, “when I am weak, it is then that I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10) An ideal example of this is the recovering drug addict who has been sober for many years and is now running a program to help others with an addiction to overcome them. His awareness of his past and of how Jesus pulled him through gives him the desire and the ability to minister to others who are on that same journey. He might even feel that Jesus allowed him to go down that dangerous path so that he would be able to help many others to leave that road and start out on the right way. It can be the man who was once addicted to pornography who now runs a program to free others from their enslavement. He understands their pain and their weakness, and has a more burning desire for them to be freed from their burden.

I am a human being with my own sins, and sometimes someone confesses something to me that I have personally dealt with in the past or even at present, and I find myself in a good position to offer them advice that I have gleaned from my own struggle with that particular sin. But no one falls prey to every sin possible, and I’ve discovered over the years that I have learned a lot about the sinfulness of the human person from what I have heard in confession, and even if I never myself fell prey to a certain sin, the lessons I have learned from those who have puts me in a better position to understand and guide another. For this reason, I always tell people never to be afraid to bring your worst sins and fears to a priest in confession. We deal with the weaknesses of human nature on a regular basis and can usually appreciate what you’re going through, even if we haven’t been there ourselves. For example, my parents are thankfully still healthy, but I have counseled enough people dealing with invalid parents to know that they can find it frustrating and that they often lose patience with them. Although I am not married, I have dealt with enough people who are tempted to be unfaithful so as to be able to say something constructive to them. I have worked with teenagers for many years, and I know the strange, dumb, and embarrassing things they sometimes do, especially when it comes to sexuality: from the one fighting compulsive masturbation, to the one who took naked selfies and accidentally emailed them to someone, to the one who was caught by their parents in the midst of a sexual act, the list goes on and on. I always tell people the same thing: if there is anyone you should NOT be embarrassed to share your worst sins with it is a priest in confession. Remember that he has the power to offer you the forgiveness of Christ.

Sometimes I discover that people have quite the reverse attitude toward what they think they should appear to be in the eyes of their pastor and what they in fact should do. Perhaps because they respect their priest so much they want Father to think they are holy, and if Father should discover they have any faults or sins they would be mortified and it would ruin his opinion of them. But that would be like so wanting the doctor to believe you’re healthy that you don’t tell him when you are sick! If anyone needs to know your illness it is the doctor. Similarly, if anyone needs to know your weakness and sins it is your priest. My job is not to pretend you are perfect, but to see you as you are, to love you as you are, and to try to help you become perfect.i'm not a perfect person

But sometimes people worry that, if they tell Father their sins and he remembers them, every time he sees them he will be recalling their sins and he’ll be ashamed of them. I can’t speak for every priest, but I can tell you what I feel. What I said above about the pastor needing to know his sheep and tend to them as they are applies here. If I pretended that my parishioners were a gathering of perfect people I’d be sorely deluded. My job is not to judge people nor is it to feel ashamed of them, as if their sin was somehow a reflection upon myself. The more in fact that I know about a person, the better position I am in to be able to respond properly to their needs. If I do in fact remember something someone told me in confession (which, by the way, I can’t even repeat to them), it only serves to help me know them better and respond in a more understanding manner to their needs. I find that the people who receive the most peace of mind are those who tell the full truth about themselves to their priest, trusting that he is there to help them and that he wants to help ease their burdenconfession-4. I will not feel like a failure if you confess your sins to me, nor will I lose respect for you because I know of all the horrible and sordid things you have done; on the contrary, I will feel like a failure if you were afraid to come to me! When I deal with a person and hear his confession on a regular basis, I end up developing a more complete understanding of him and end up loving him all the more. Everyone needs a place where they can divulge their deepest sins and failings. Who better to bring them to than your priest?

A parish is not a gathering of saints but of sinners trying to become saints. While we are all at different stages in our journey to holiness – to being the best version of ourselves that we can be – we will never be perfected until we enter into Heaven.

So don’t be afraid of your pastor or any priest with whom you have a good relationship knowing your faults and weaknesses. Don’t be embarrassed. The more he knows of you the more he can help you, and the more you know he knows of you, the more easily you will be able to share other problems with him, and the better he can help you grow in holiness and peace of mind.

I don’t like my parish! Should I leave and find another?

 

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Every once in a while I find myself sitting down with someone who wants to talk to me about a problem they have with their church. They don’t like their parish and they want to know whether or not they should start going somewhere else for Sunday Mass. I rarely give them a “yes” or “no” answer. What I try to do is to guide them through their feelings and to see if their transfer is warranted. Let’s look at just a few of the common reasons people use:

1. “I don’t like our pastor.” That’s a very common reason. Fair enough. My first question is always, “What is your reason for not liking him?” Was it because of something he did that wasn’t wrong but with which you were not in agreement? Seven years ago here at St. Ann’s we repainted the church and reappointed it with tile flooring, chandeliers, new paintings, new furniture, and recently a new memorial piazza in front of the church and chapel where people may purchase bricks in memory of loved ones or for special events. Before beginning the work, I shared my plans with the Parish Council and sought their opinion. I did nothing without consulting them and the people beforehand. While the response to our efforts was overwhelmingly positive and I received tons of accolades over the end results, nevertheless, there were some people who didn’t like it and even left the parish over it. No priest is ever going to get 100% agreement on any project and there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like it. That’s just a part of life! (Actually, we did get 100% approval on one thing: when we first did a feasibility study to find out if the people of the parish agreed that there was a need to replace our leaking roofs, the responses to the survey were unanimous! 100% of respondents agreed that the roofs on the church & rectory needed to be replaced, and only one person did not agree that the same was true of the school roof!) Sometimes pastors need to make decisions for the well-being of the parish, and not everyone will agree with him. If your pastor made changes you don’t like, my advice is to accept it and move on without ruminating over it and letting it eat away at you. Maybe the next pastor will make changes you will like!

Is your dislike of the pastor due to something you yourself experienced or from a story you heard from another? Before you form an opinion, make sure you have your facts straight. I have had people not like me for reasons that were totally untrue. Sometimes they heard gossip or rumors that took a kernel of truth and so distorted it to make it sound like something horrible which was in fact quite innocent. For example, I once mentioned at a funeral that when news first broke of a particular person’s death, the phone began ringing off the hook with people wanting to know the arrangements. The point I was making was that the man had obviously been loved by many people who wanted to come and pay their respects, and I told the widow from the pulpit that I regretted not ever having met him, as I seemed to have missed meeting a very special person. Well, someone with a grudge against me twisted what I said and began telling people that in my homily I complained to the widow that when I got the phone call about his funeral, “the phone was ringing off the hook” with so many other demands that I was annoyed that I had to do his funeral! (I’m not making this up! This REALLY HAPPENED!)  Sadly, there are even some people who are also not opposed to stooping so low as to create conflicts that never in fact took place. One person once actually accused me of stopping the Mass and publicly chastising a lector for mispronouncing a word in the reading. I assure you that never happened! Other times stories are told in a manner that, while in their core are true, are missing critical information that changes the whole nature of an account. I remember a woman once complaining to me about the neighboring pastor who “refused to do her daughter’s wedding and threw her out of the rectory.” Since that didn’t sound like something that priest would ever do, I asked him about it. What happened was that the priest informed her daughter that her fiancé needed an annulment before she could validly marry him and that he could not perform the wedding without it. According to the priest, the woman’s daughter got angry at him and the Church for their “stupid rules” and stormed out of the rectory. Big difference! While some criticisms of priests are spot on and the priest did in fact act badly in a certain situation, make sure you have all the facts before deciding you don’t like someone. You could be reacting to faulty information and turning against someone unjustly. Remember also that priests are human and we too have our bad days. I’ve had to apologize on occasion for being a little short with someone, so one bad day should never be used to mar the otherwise stellar reputation of a very compassionate priest. Would any of us want to be judged by our behavior on our worst day?

But let’s not be naïve: there are some nasty priests out there. I am appalled by the behavior I have at times experienced from pastors and parochial vicars with whom I have worked, who often behave that way on a regular basis. I feel sorry for good people who have to endure the rants of an angry curmudgeon or of an insecure pastor whose only method of dealing with people seems to be to intimidate them so terribly that they will fear to ever question him. What do you do then? Well, some people respond by saying, “Hey! I’ve been here for thirty years and he’s not chasing me out of the parish I love!” They decide they can endure his term, knowing he will eventually leave and perhaps be replaced by a more kindly soul. Others find his very presence an obstacle to their ability to pray and worship effectively, and they decide it’s time to change parishes. If your parish has a nasty pastor, can you withstand him, or do you need to leave in order to encounter Christ? Only you can make that decision.

2. “I don’t like what my priest/pastor preaches.” My response to this statement is always the same: “What does he say that you don’t like?” Is he preaching heresy? Then you have a valid gripe. You have a right to hear – and the priest has a duty to preach – the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Church and nothing else. So if you are certain that the priest is preaching heresy or his own personal view of what he’d like the Church to teach; if he preaches that the Church is wrong in its position on moral issues, flee! He is a false prophet and he will have to answer to Christ as he stands before the Lord in judgment as to why he dared to preach as the Gospel something other than what Christ has revealed through His Church. As St. Paul said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:8)

But how about if what he’s preaching is the Gospel and authentic Catholic teaching but you don’t like hearing it? Now the situation is different! Father has a duty to preach the Gospel and to not withhold the truth just because some people don’t like it. As St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1-5) So if you leave your parish because you only want your priest to speak “sweet nothings” and what I call “marshmallow theology” – nice and sweet and fluffy but no nutritional value whatsoever – then you have a serious problem! Your argument is not with your pastor but with Christ! You are looking for a priest who will not tell you the truth for fear of offending you and who will never say anything you don’t want to hear. That would be like going to a doctor and telling him never to tell you that you are sick or that you can’t eat certain foods. “I want you to tell me I can eat all the junk food I want and not exercise and still lose weight and be healthy!” Well, if the doctor tells you that just because that’s what you want to hear, he’s not doing you any good at all; on the contrary, he’s harming you. The doctor’s job is to tell you the truth about what you need to do to be healthy even if you don’t like it. The same is true of a priest. I’m not saying a priest has to beat people over the head with moral teachings constantly (he has to be sensitive and give the truth in appropriate doses), but any priest who is afraid to say something the people will not like is not fulfilling his duty before the Lord. Whenever I find out that someone has left my parish because I spoke the truth of the faith, especially if they’re bad-mouthing me, unless I know I was unduly harsh in my delivery of the truth, I rejoice! As Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12) So be very careful when criticizing a priest’s preaching. Ask yourself honestly if he was wrong or if he is right but you just don’t want to accept it.

3. “There’s no life in my parish.” That may be true. While sometimes I’ve discovered that people claim there is nothing going on in their parish when in fact it’s a hopping place, some parishes do lack activities. Have you suggested anything to your pastor? Are you willing to work on the project? Lots of times people are full of ideas but no one wants to help out. If the pastor were to say yes to everything without anyone helping him out he’d be burned out very quickly! He can’t do it without volunteers. If you’re eager to belong to a group or an activity that your parish doesn’t or cannot provide, see if a nearby parish does. There’s usually no rule that says you must be a parishioner in that parish in order to participate, and you don’t always have to leave your parish just because a nearby parish is more active.

On the whole I try to encourage people not to leave their parish but to try to do something to make a difference. Sometimes we exaggerate the problems in a parish, and other times we give up too easily and don’t attempt to do things that are well within our power to change. Don’t think that by leaving you are spiting the pastor. He may not even know you’ve left! If you feel you must leave, don’t leave for his sake; leave for your own! Try and see if you can make a positive difference. Have you talked to the pastor about your complaint? Many times people gripe, complain, and leave, but never once speak with the pastor. Maybe he will listen to you. If, however, you have tried your best or things are beyond your ability to change, you feel a warmer connection with another parish where the Gospel is more faithfully proclaimed, where the Mass is celebrated with greater dignity, where’s there’s a greater spirit of family and a Catholic life about this parish, then I would think in good faith you should not hesitate to join that parish and become an active part of it.

Artificial Contraception: Pandora’s Moral Box

I recently came across this blog post about the effects of contraception on our society. It is well-written and deserves to be seriously pondered by all.

Discipline and Contraception: A Cause for Joy

Discipline and Contraception: A Cause for Joy

A few nights ago, well after our darling little three year old should have been asleep, she came running into our room crying hysterically. Something about her night light and a noise and now it wasn’t working.

Upon investigation, we found this:

Turns out, she was playing with a penny and placed it on the metal prongs of the plugged-in night light which caused the explosion, the noises, and the scariness. We are thankful that she is okay, and she cried over and over again that would, “never ever do that ever again.” We used the opportunity to reinforce why she isn’t supposed to be playing with coins in her bed  (we’ve already had to explain the choking hazards), and why she should not play with her night-lights or outlets in general. The next step is taking her coins away completely, because discipline requires consequences for behavior. It is because we love her that we want to discipline her so that she remains safe.

I started thinking about this incident again when I was reading about the Wijngaards Statement to the UN, encouraging the Catholic Church to change its stance on contraception.

Back when Humanae Vitae was written, Pope Paul VI warned that if we went down the road of widespread acceptance of contraception, we would see in our culture a lowering of morality, increased infidelity, less respect for women, and government coercion of reproductive technologies. He, like a loving father, warned us that if we were going to play with pennies in an electrical outlet, we were going to get burnt.

But for the most part we didn’t listen, and now look around you. Religious groups are suing the government over the HHS mandate, some countries forcibly abort babies past the second child, the Ashley Madison leak revealed thousands of names of men being unfaithful for their wives, pornography is a billion dollar industry and fuels sex trafficking, and we all know someone affected by divorce or infidelity.

We are experiencing the consequences of our actions, and I think many in the younger generation are now desiring the safety of discipline. You can tell us “no” to contraception because we have experienced the devastating effects of divorce, pornography, rape, and infidelity in our own families. I think deep down, like children, we want to obey and be protected from the harmful effects of going against the plan God has for us.

A group of 500 scholars have come out with a statement (and signed by hundreds of more with doctorates) denouncing the Wijngaard position and affirming all the Popes’ teachings on the inseparable unitive and procreative meanings of sex, as well as the language of the body as self-gift in the marital act, and how contraception distorts that meaning. You can read the “Affirmation of the Church’s Teaching on the Gift of Sexuality” and read all the signatures here.

Now back to discipline. Some of the Church teachings can seem hard at times. I see couples wrestle with these hard teachings during marriage prep all the time. I have wrestled with them myself. Even disciples in the bible struggled with accepting hard teachings. And then I see my kids struggle to put their clothes away when I ask, or clean up the toys in the basement, and I know that we all struggle with accepting doing the hard things. Still, it’s good for us to learn to obey and learn the value of discipline.  There is the fruit of joy in peaceful, loving families with faithful spouses and respect for all life. This fruit can only happen when we reject the rebellion of contraception and accept the sometimes-difficult way that is open to life.

“Endure your trials as ‘discipline’; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? . . . At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Hebrews 12:7-11

With all the different religions out there, why should I choose to be Catholic?

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Years ago, I remember reading an article someone had written in the local newspaper to the effect that she was Catholic and her sister had become a Jehovah’s Witness. She mentioned how she struggled with her sister’s decision until she eventually reached the conclusion, “To each his own!” She said that being a Catholic worked for her, and if being a Jehovah’s Witness worked for her sister, then that’s great! Her ultimate conclusion was that everyone should find whatever religion he likes and stick with it, as they’re all fine. I disagree.

Religion is not a country club. Religion is our response to the revelation of God. We worship God according to the truth we believe he reveals about himself. Virtually every society on the face of the earth has come to believe in the existence of God. Many people have shown how belief in God can be deduced logically, and many of these arguments are quite compelling. But while we can logically deduce his existence, there is wide disagreement on what he is like. Ancient civilizations believed in many gods, and most of these were angry gods that needed to be appeased with sacrifices, incense, throwing virgins into volcanoes, even child sacrifice! If we came across such religions today, I don’t think any of us would merely say, “To each his own!” No, we’d be horrified! In time we’ve come to realize that certain religions are not true and have rejected them. But there are many others still widely practiced across the globe whose adherents will die for their belief that this is the truth. The beliefs of different religions sometimes contradict each other, thus they cannot both be true. For example, Hinduism believes in several gods, while Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe in only one. Logic tells us that Judaism’s claim that God has said, “I am God, and there is no other” prohibits the possibility that we could reconcile Hinduism with Judaism. At most only one of them is revealing the truth about God, but not both.

So why be Catholic? I can best respond to that question by relating my own process of reasoning which led me to believe that the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church.

When I was in the 7th grade, I was automatically launched on the program of preparation in my Catholic grammar school which would get me ready for the Sacrament of Confirmation. I was told about the “big decision” I was making to choose Christ and his Catholic Church. Being the person I was, I could never consent to anything without asking myself if I agreed with it. I therefore launched myself on an exhaustive soul-searching enterprise to see if this is in fact what I believed.

Since we are talking about religion and not science, I knew I had to start somewhere with a leap of faith. I certainly believed in the existence of God. I took the leap of faith to believe in the God of Israel. To me that made sense. With that as a foundation, I asked myself, “Okay, Judaism or Christianity?” I discovered that the crux in the whole question here was the person of Jesus. Israel had been longing for a messiah, and Jesus ultimately claimed to be that messiah. If he was truly the messiah, then Christianity was true; if he was a false prophet, I would be duty bound to become Jewish. It seemed obvious to me that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was the key issue: did he or didn’t he rise? If he did, I felt he had proven himself to be truly what he said he was. If he did not rise, he was a fake. So could anyone prove he had risen from the dead?

It seemed strange to me at first that the accounts of the resurrection claimed that Jesus only appeared to his followers and not to Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas, or King Herod. But then I realized that these unschooled men went out and boldly proclaimed to the very people they had previously been afraid of that they had seen Jesus risen on numerous occasions. They couldn’t have all been mistaken or have hallucinated. No, they firmly believed they’d seen Jesus risen, and they went to foreign countries preaching his name and died horrible deaths defending it. I couldn’t conceive of eleven of the twelve apostles willingly dying for something they knew they’d made up or if they couldn’t be sure they hadn’t hallucinated. No, they were crucified, boiled alive, sawed in half and skinned alive convinced they’d seen Jesus risen. That to me was proof! They wouldn’t have suffered so terribly for something they knew was a lie! So I realized I beleived in Christ. That also valdiated my leap of faith in the God of Israel. If Jesus rose from the dead, and he was the fulfillment of the promise to Israel, then the God who made the promise was real!

Okay, so I was a Christian, but how about Catholic? Many verses of scripture convinced me that Jesus gave the apostles his authority and sent them as his witnesses, and that we had to remain one with them and the tradition they handed down. That tradition is what Ignatius of Antioch first called “The Catholic Church” around the year 107 AD. I knew that, since Jesus had given his authority to them, only he could take it away. Even though there were periods in history when everything wasn’t rosy, when some of the popes and priests were not giving the greatest of example, even sinning terribly, that still didn’t take away the authority that Jesus gave them.

I thought of it this way: suppose a President of the United States committed a serious crime and had to be removed from office, maybe even sent to prison for his crime. He was an embarrassment to his Office, no doubt. But what do we do now? We get a new president! No one would say that the Constitution of the United States was rendered null and void by the sins of the president. Similarly, even if some popes had sinned and were a disgrace, that still did not remove the authority Jesus gave to St. Peter. In order for the Catholic Church to lose her authority to speak in Jesus’ name, Jesus himself would have to return to earth and formally remove it and give it to another. He never did that with Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, Zwingli, or any other reformer, and none of them ever claimed he did! I therefore concluded that the Catholic Church still possesses the authority to teach in the name of Christ and not any of the other denominations of Christianity, that those who separated from the Catholic Church were not in full Communion with Christ, and I was therefore duty-bound to embrace the Catholic faith. On October 16, 1976 at 11 AM, I did so at my Confirmation and have not looked back since.