Doing What It Takes

20th Sunday in O.T. (A); August 20, 2017

Is 56:1,6-7   Ps 67   Rom 11:13-15,29-32   Mt 15:21-28

Deacon Jim McFadden; SJB

 

            Today’s Gospel maybe one of the most problematic in the entire New Testament as on the surface it seems to portray Jesus as a chauvinist. Jesus leaves God’s own holy land and enters pagan territory where he encounters a Syro-Phoenician (in Mark’s Gospel) or a Canaanite (in Matthew’s account) woman. She comes to Jesus and tells him of her daughter who is troubled by a demon. Jesus not only ignores her, but also puts her down in a very blunt way that we find offensive.

In his attitude toward the woman, we see the human Jesus as a product of his culture. He sees the woman as a member of Canaan, a nation that Israel hates the most. She is also a threat to Jesus’ respectability, because she is an unattended woman who publicly accosts Jesus and speaks to him directly by shouting “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” (Mt 15:21).

She may be both assertive and noisy, but she’s insightful. She knows who Jesus is. She calls him “Lord, Son of David,” which are two comprehensive titles: Jesus is Lord, intimately connected to God (the Father) and therefore meant for all mankind. But, he is also the Son of David, who is the fulfillment of the Messianic hope that originated in the Jewish tradition. So, Jesus is both the universal and the particular savior—the woman understands that.

Since she knows who Jesus is, she knows what Jesus can give: She asks for mercy. That’s why she persists. She will do whatever it takes for her daughter to be healed. If her daughter is going to be healed by Jesus, she has got to advocate on her behalf; so, Jesus’ mercy will flow through her into her daughter. In other words she will be a conduit for God’s mercy.

But, in the short term “… he did not answer her at all” (Mt 15:23). So why doesn’t he talk with her?   She is only asking the Messiah to fulfill his calling and expel the demons who torment God’s children. But, Jesus refuses to acknowledge her presence, let alone honor her request.

Believing that the pushy Canaanite woman is the problem, the disciples come to his rescue and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). The woman, however, is not the problem. To be blunt, it lies in Jesus’ mind. He has construed his identity and mission within the boundaries of Israel, and the Canaanite woman is an outsider. He belongs to Israel, who like David will gather all the tribes into one Kingdom again. The woman is outside David’s house. Jesus is basically saying, “I am Jew, you’re not; so your problem is no concern of mine.” Undaunted, she lays prostrate and says again, “Lord, help me” (v. 25).

Notice in this plea that there is a subtle omission. When she addressed Jesus the first time, she called him, “Lord, Son of David,” which acknowledge both his particular origins as a Jew and his universal outreach as Lord. She knows that Jesus is stressing his Jewishness at the expense of the wider humanity. The result is that she is outside him and her pleas go unheard, which means her daughter will not be healed. So, this resourceful woman, who will do whatever it takes for her daughter to be healed, drops the ‘Son of David’ and simply says, “Lord, help me.” To which Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).

Oh, my goodness!—this is where the dialogue becomes very

troublesome: Jesus just called a human being a ‘dog.’ Really?

By using the word “dogs”, Jesus shows that he has absorbed the biases of his Jewish culture to see non-Jews as inferior. To deny that Jesus was not influenced by cultural biases of his time is to make Jesus less than human. But as the story unfolds, Jesus will break out of the limitation of his Jewish identity and come to see his mission as the universal savior.

At this point the woman gives off one of the best one-liners in all of Scripture: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (v. 27). By coming back with that zinger, she again is emphasizing Jesus’ universal outreach by calling him ‘Lord,’ the one who is meant for everyone. She may not be a daughter of Israel, but she is eager for any food that Jesus has to offer.

Jesus is won over as he answered her, “ O Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (v.28a).   The title ‘woman’ that Jesus uses is not simply a description of her gender. And it is certainly a far cry from dog. The ‘O’ suggests a shock of recognition; today, we’d say ‘Wow!—you’ve given me a sudden revelation. The pestering one, whom the disciples wanted to get rid of, is the bearer of a deeper truth. This is her great faith. Through persistence and cleverness she reminded Jesus of his true identity. He is a Jew. But, more importantly, he is Lord of the universe.

As a consequence of this woman’s act of faith, Jesus does something remarkable for her. Jesus is not usually swayed by the wishes of others, whether it be Pharisees, disciples, or individual seekers. He is driven only by the will of the Father. Therefore, it is remarkable for Jesus say to this woman, “Let it be done to you as you wish” (Mt 15:28b). Could it be that when Jesus was listening to this woman, he was hearing the voice of his Father? His Father’s voice may come from the sky as we heard at Jesus’ baptism or a cloud at his Transfiguration, but it also speaks from the earth, through people who search for mercy in a demon-filled world. Whenever and wherever Jesus hears his Father’s voice, he is alert, ready, in touch, flowing. And that is what happened.

“And her daughter was healed instantly” (v. 28c).

Once the block is removed, mercy flows freely.

            Brothers and sister, this gospel is a cautionary tale to all of us. We too can absorb our culture’s attitudes without consciously realizing it. Time and time again, we need to remind ourselves and each other that that first and foremost we are God’s beloved. When we live out of that love, mercy flows from Jesus’ Sacred Heart into us; and from us into situations where it is deeply needed. Amen.

 

 

Come to the Quiet

19th Sunday in O.T. (A); Aug. 13, 2017

1 Kgs 19:9-13a;   Ps 85   Rom 9:1-5   Mt 14:22-33

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison

 

            It’s difficult for most of us to be still. We’re surrounded by a wall of endless chatter, small talk, off-the-cuff remarks that have no beginning and no end. Then, there’s the talk of intrigue, plots, what-if scenarios that suck us into a mind-numbing vortex. It’s not only external distractions that we have to deal with: the white noise that dwells within our own mind—that incessant flow of one distracting thought after another makes us feel that we’re like a monkey bouncing off one side of the cage to another. The need for constant “communication” can be suffocating, which creates these barriers between ourselves and God and each other. Today’s readings invite us to enter into spaces of silence, where it is easier to hear the One who is constantly communicating his divine love to us.

In the first reading, Elijah is on the lam and afraid for his life. After he slaughtered 500 of the Queen Jezebel’s prophets, she was out for blood. During his flight he got so discouraged that he plopped himself down by a broom tree and asked God to let him die. Life was just too hard to go any further. Haven’t we all had that feeling at one time in our life?   But, God has other plans for Elijah, just as he has for you and I. First, an angel sent by God fortifies him with food and drink. Thus strengthen, he begins a 40 day trek to Mount Horeb, the same mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Elijah climbs the mountain. He goes to that place that connects him with the God of Moses; he goes to his roots where the covenant bonds between God and his Chosen People were forged. Elijah was seeking intimate contract with God. He needed to feel connected with the Lord if he was to continue his arduous journey. He wanted God to show himself. There then appeared a devouring fire just like the flames that engulfed the Burning Bush but did not consume it. God was not there. Nor, did Elijah encounter God in the fierce, roaring wind or an earthquake. God would not come to him via spectacular special effects. Instead, God came as “a tiny whispering sound” or, in another translation, as “a sound of sheer silence.”

 

            What’s going on here? In order to come into God’s presence, we have to be still. We have ask ourselves whether our thoughts, choices, actions are leading us to fulfill our deepest desire to be in communion with God and to do God’s purposes or are they driving us away into the wilderness of distraction. Elijah was still and in that encounter with God he was strengthened for the remainder of his prophetic mission.

In the Gospel, we see Jesus likewise retreat to a mountain by himself to pray, following the noisiness and clamor of feeding 5,000 people and learning of the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. But, the crowds find him and he breaks out of his solitude to respond compassionately to their needs.

As the Gospel story unfolds, Jesus retreats again. Even at night the people’s need for him doesn’t ease. Moreover, his disciples are in distress on their boat, which is being buffeted by strong winds. This scene is so rich with meaning. The early Fathers of the Church saw the sea as being representative of life and the instability of the visible world. Imagine the sea of Folsom Prison. The storm points to every kind of trial and difficulty that oppress human beings. Striving to live a life of integrity behind these walls is a challenge as you are being tested every day. But, you are not alone because the boat represents the Church, built by Christ and steered by the Apostles and their successors. By virtue of your baptism, you are an integral member of the Church family.

The disciples are in distress, but Jesus does not go to them until the fourth and final watch of the night, roughly about three hours before dawn. We can surmise that Jesus was aware of the strong winds that were tossing them about. But, he remained in solitude, in that necessary inner stillness, where he experienced oneness with God. Strengthened by that intimacy with the Father, he then compassionately ministers to his disciples.

Coming to them at last, he challenges them not to be afraid and invites them to share his fearlessness. This gospel was written thirty or so years after Jesus was executed and although life can be very hard, the Church returns to our still Center, which is the heart of Jesus. As we dwell within Him, he can do through us that which seems impossible. As Peter, the first Pope of the Church, was floundering in the sea, Jesus stretched out his hand to him just as he does to you. Peter grasped his hand to come closer to Jesus and, as he did, he found his true Center, where Jesus’ contagious courage dispels all fear. He did it with Peter and he can do it for you if you let Him.

 

 

 

Catholic Trends/Summer ’17

 

         Pope Francis v. the Alt-right. The struggle between progressives and conservatives under the Francis pontificate took a dramatic turn when the New York Times linked alt-right standard bearer, Steve Bannon (former Breitbart News editor, current advisor to President Trump, and self-identified but non-practicing Catholic) to the Vatican. According to the Times, Bannon and archconservative Cardinal Raymond Burke had a “meeting of the hearts” back in 2014 over the belief that Islam poses an existential threat to the secularized West. And it makes the case that Bannon and the alt-right are in league with Burke and Vatican hard-liners looking to undermine Pope Francis.

This fight over the direction of the Vatican is not something new. As

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne points out, this struggle is a continuation between progressives and conservatives: (the NYT’s story) “…brought into relief the struggles inside the church—and particularly within American Catholicism—over the pope’s stewardship, his emphasis on battling poverty, his insistence on the importance of welcoming immigrants and refugees, his relative openness to modernity” (WP, 8-2-17).

Adding to this tension is the linkage the alt-right is making with conservative pro-family groups. The latter, who are explicitly pro-life (at least in terms of abortion), anti-LGBT rights, and pro-“natural” family agenda are making common cause with far-right political groups. In the 2016 Presidential election, 60% of regular Mass attendees voted for candidate Donald J. Trump.

So, Bannon’s outreach to the Vatican may be part of a long-term strategy to link conservative Catholicism with right wing populism, which may seem conspiratorial, but Pope Francis certainly takes the linkage seriously. In a recent interview with an (unofficial) Vatican publication, Francis explicitly called out Bannon and the alt-right as being resistant to Gospel values via planting the seeds of division, eroding our sense of solidarity with all the faithful, and ignoring the preferential option for the poor.

 

U.S. Catholics’ View of Muslims. CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) polled adult Catholics (Bridge Initiative, 9-12-15) few U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of Muslims (only 14%), while 30% have very unfavorable. 45% are neutral. One contributing reason to this state of affairs is that Catholics are less likely than the general population to know a Muslim personally. Not surprisingly, when one does know a Muslim personally, the person’s views about Islam changes for the better.

Ignorance is not bliss, but can be harmful. Nearly half of Catholics can’t name any similarities between Catholicism and Islam despite the fact that the latter is monotheistic, believes that Scripture is revelatory, recognizes Jesus as the Son of God who will preside at the Last Judgment, has a sense of social justice, and recognizes the witness of the Old and New Testament prophets. The majority of Catholics incorrectly believe that Muslims worship the Prophet Muhammad.

 

Priest shortage and Catholic parishes. In 1990 there were 34,114 active diocesan priests serving 19,131 parishes serving a population of 57.4 million Catholics. With the declining number of priests and demographic shifts, especially in the Midwest and East, there are today less diocesan priests, 25,760, (decline of c. 9,000), serving fewer parishes 17,233

(less 1,900), with a burgeoning population of 67.7 million Catholics. Today, there are 3,400 parishes without a resident priest.

 

         Top Dioceses by Total Ordinations (over 3 years).   There were 20 dioceses who ordain at least 15 priests from 2013-2015. Numero uno was Chicago, IL with 40 ordinands with a Catholic pop. of 2.2 million.

Lincoln, NB, Lafayette, LA, and Trenton, NJ were at the bottom rung. Sacramento, CA was about in the middle (11) with 18 ordinands for a pop. of 1 million.

 

Children Raised by Catholic Parents More Likely to Stay Catholic. When I preside at baptisms, I remind the assembly that the best, sure-fire way to predict whether the child will practice her/his faith as an adolescent and adult is whether the parents are enthusiastically active in living their Catholic faith. A report of the Pew Research Center (2014) bears this out: most people raised exclusively by Catholic parents (62%) continue to identify as Catholics in adulthood. But those raised by one Catholic parent and one non-Catholic parent have less than a 50% chance.

Americans are most likely to be religiously unaffiliated if they are raised exclusively by parents who are unaffiliated themselves.

 

And They’re Not Coming Back. One often hears that when a young person drifts away from their Catholic faith that they will return when they have children of their own and want them to be baptized, to receive 1st Communion, and be confirmed. Not so, according to CARA and St. Mary’s Press study (2015). When asked Is there anything that would make you consider returning to the Catholic faith in the future (?), only 13% said yes and 87% said no.

Among those who leave there were some commonalities. Many lacked any forma religious education. They simply did not know their faith. 76% had no Catholic schooling at any level and 58% had no parish religious instruction.

They were weakly tethered to the church. 63% received 1st Communion, but only 33% were confirmed. 54% attended Mass rarely or never (28%), or a few times/year (26%).

When they stopped self-identifying as Catholic: under age 10 (23%), age 10-12 (24%), age 13-17 (39%), age 18-20 (11%), and 21-25 (3%).

In sum, if one is loosely affiliated with their parish and are poorly catechized as children and adolescents, the chances of being a self-identified and practicing adult Catholic are remote.

Contributing to this sobering state of affairs, is that compared to past generations, parents, many of whom are under-catechized and irregularly practice their faith (only 25% of American Catholics regularly attend Mass), seem more likely to allow their children to make their own choices about whether to continue as Catholics. Some do so as early as receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation.

 

Five Trends Affecting Parish Life.   The study of the Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century (2017), found the following trends:

  1. Declining vocations to ordained and non-ordained religious life.
  2. Catholics migration from the inner city to the suburbs and from the North and Midwest to the South and West.
  3. Growth in the U.S. Catholic population fueled by immigration. 25% of U.S. Catholics are foreign-born, especially Spanish-speaking. As many as 25% of parishes celebrate weekend Mass in more than one language.
  4. The continuing impact of Vatican II. The “priesthood of the laity” and “lay ecclesial minister” is now an important and accepted component of parish life.
  5. Declining participation in the sacraments. Cover your eyes! Today, only 25% of adult Catholics attend Mass weekly. While the Catholic population has grown by 30% since 1985, Catholic marriages are down 57% and infant baptisms have decreased by 27%.

 

While the latter are sobering stats., we don’t want to lose sight of the centrality of the Eucharist to parish life, the efforts of dedicated clergy and lay people to serve God while serving their parishioners and secular culture, and the humble recognition that the Church does have a human dimension in which we make mistakes, but remain faithful and committed nevertheless. As long as the Lord builds the house (cf. Ps 127) we have many reasons to be optimistic about the future of U.S. Catholicism.

 

Climate Change Concerns Catholics More than other Christians. In the aftermath of Pope Francis’ beautiful and challenging encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, U.S. Catholics are more likely to be concerned about climate change than other Christians (according to a CARA survey, May 16-26, 2016). Overall, 63% of U.S. adults agree that temperatures on Earth are getting warmer in response to higher concentrations of heat trapping greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. 65% of Catholics agree this statement and 68% believe that it is a result of human activity. In contrast, 46% of Evangelical Christians and 59% of mainstream Protestants agree. Moreover, Catholics are also more likely than other U.S. adults to believe they have a moral responsibility to do what they can to combat climate change.

 

Americans look for good sermons and a warm welcome. According to the Pew Research Center (8-23-16), “About half of U.S. adults have looked for a new religious congregation at some point in their lives, most commonly because they have moved.” When they do so, the overwhelming majority say the quality of preaching played a major role in their decision. They also want to feel welcome—that somehow their presence is appreciated by the gathered assembly.

 

They Like Us! According to another Pew Research survey (January 9-23, 2017) 66% of Americans have a favorable feeling towards Catholics. The most highly regarded are Jews at 67%.