3rd Sunday in Ord. Time [B] - 22 JAN 2012

The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Jonah 3:1-5,10  ─  1 Corinthians 7:29-31  ─  Mark 1:14-20
January 22, 2012

“Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you.” [Jonah 3:1]

Much of the homily below is taken from an essay by Dr. Janet Smith, which to read, click HERE.

This past week, the United States federal government, through its Department of Health and Human Services, declared that abortifacients—i.e., chemicals and devices that destroy unborn human life—would have to be considered a form of “health care” that employers must provide in their health plans, even if doing so violates their consciences. Catholic hospitals are among the employers that this directive would include.

Friday, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, spoke about this directive from the federal government. Here are his words:

Is it a coincidence that this directive came from the federal government just days before the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision declaring that it’s legal in the U.S. to murder unborn children? The assaults on human life are not going to stop. This weekend is a good time to step back and look at the bigger picture.
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Most Christians have been deeply affected by modern culture’s view of sexuality, radically opposed as it is to the Gospel.  Ten minutes of watching MTV or a soap opera; ten minutes of listening to any rock, pop, or country music station; one visit to the grocery-store magazine rack convinces anyone that our society has little respect for the Christian view of sexuality.  But Christians themselves have begun to lose sight of Christian tradition.  Today, then, within the culture that surrounds us, both internal and external evangelization is necessary.  Christians themselves need to learn deeply their own tradition, before they can witness to those in society who need to meet persons who are in control of their sexuality, and who are happy because of it [not in spite of it].

Last Sunday, in reflecting on a young man who was considering the priesthood, we saw the need for the virtues of discernment, and patience.  These same virtues are just as necessary for a young man or woman whom God calls to Holy Matrimony.  Discernment and patience are needed, in different ways, both before a couple marries, and during their married life.
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Why should sexual union only take place within marriage?  It can hardly be denied that intercourse creates a powerful bond between individuals, even between those who do not desire that bond.  Those who have intercourse are engaging in an action that speaks of a deep commitment to each another.  Pope John Paul II uses an interesting phrase in his teachings about sexuality:  he speaks about the “language of the body.”  He claims that, like words, bodily actions have meanings, and that unless we intend those meanings with our actions, we should not perform those actions, any more than we should speak words we do not mean, because in both cases, lies would be “spoken.”  A very simple example would be two persons who meet face-to-face and make an agreement:  when they conclude their deliberations, they say with their words, “I agree to our deal”; and with the action of a handshake, they “say” the same thing.

When it comes to human sexuality, the Christian view is that intercourse has an objective meaning.  The common secular view is that each individual can make his actions mean whatever he wants.  In the secular view, intercourse can either mean a permanent commitment to the other person, or it can simply mean a desire for physical pleasure, or it can mean anything in between:  whatever the individual wants the action to mean.

By contrast, the Christian view is that intercourse has an objective meaning, independent of one’s intention:  namely, that this action “says”, “I give my self to you freely, fully, faithfully, and fully open to new life.”  Individuals are not free to assign their own personal meaning to this action, if they want to follow Christ Jesus, because Christ is leading us to God the Father, who is the Creator of human life, the Creator of human sexuality, and the Creator of the Sacrament of Marriage.  All three of these—life, sexuality, and marriage—were not just created by God in the beginning.  God is the Creator of each and every human life, giving to each individual the gift of sexuality.  God is present when each couple exchange their vows with each other, and it’s His grace at that moment that creates the bond of their own marriage, sealing these two human lives into one flesh.  The human will, and human actions by themselves are not powerful enough to create the bond that couples need, to hold themselves together, and to hold their family together.

The Christian husband and wife take vows in marriage because they honestly admit that they are human:  they are all too ready to give up when the going gets tough.  They realize that human love alone waxes and wanes.  But as the divorce rate indicates, modern society ultimately does not take these vows very seriously – or at least modern couples do not prepare for marriage in such a way that they are prepared to keep their vows.

How do two Christians prepare to enter the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony?  It’s not by meeting with their pastor, or by attending an “Engaged Encounter” weekend.  Real marriage preparation must occur for many years before a man and woman enter marriage (ideally, that preparation will occur every year of their lives leading up to marriage).

Let me choose just one virtue as an example to illustrate this point.  It’s arguably the most important of the virtues that allow someone to live a successful marriage:  that is, the virtue of fidelity, or faithfulness.  Most spouses would surely agree how important fidelity is during marriage, but what role does fidelity have in a young person’s life before he or she marries?  It may actually seem odd to speak of the need to be faithful to one’s spouse before marriage:  not so odd during the period of engagement perhaps, but Christ demands even more of young people.

A young person who wants to follow Christ is called by Christ to love his or her spouse even before the two meet!  This means reserving the gift of oneself until one is married:  because in a very profound sense, a young person’s sexuality belongs to his or her future spouse as much as it does to oneself.  A young person may not know who that spouse is going to be, but the eternal God does.

Recognizing the need for chastity before marriage, though, simply raises a harder question:  how does a young person live a chaste life in the midst of American culture?  A life committed to the virtue of chastity is full of demands, and calls for strength from the young person.  For instance, Christian chastity means being attentive to what provokes sexual thoughts and desires, and consequently, avoiding those occasions.  Chastity means, more often than not, dissociating oneself from many of the forms of entertainment that are popular today.  Christians who view sexuality as a gift, which one offers one’s spouse at the time of marriage, cannot fall victim to the constant barrage of images and sounds that most Americans face daily.  We as Christians in America need to be careful about what music we listen to, what movies and TV shows we watch, and what clothes we wear.
So as a young Christian lives a life of chastity, year after year, he or she might ask:  what difference is waiting until marriage going to make?  This question comes up especially once a couple is engaged.  Why not live together and start experiencing practically what they “know” they are going to live like after the wedding?

There are several reasons, both practical and spiritual.  On the one hand, a vow is not a vow until it is spoken:  unspoken, unratified commitments are all too easy to break.  That’s the very purpose of a vow:  it takes out of the hands of the two spouses a decision about their relationship.  Even a moment before the vows are spoken, separation is each of those person’s right:  the moment after the vows are spoken, the same act of separation would be a serious sin.

More practically, while engaged couples try to convince themselves that living together helps them know each other better, and therefore gives an opportunity to ensure that the couple is “compatible”, the statistics of cohabitation and divorce demonstrate a clear connection of cause and effect.  In God’s design for marriage, including authentic preparation for marriage, the time immediately before marriage is an irreplaceable opportunity for two persons to know each other better.  However, engaging in intercourse during this time creates a false sense of closeness.  The emotions and feelings fostered by sexual intimacy create a smokescreen that cloud deeper problems:  problems that in the clear light of a chaste relationship would raise red flags, which too often tragically, everyone else around the couple can see all too clearly.

On the other hand, an engaged couple who live chastely show that sexual attraction is not the most important part of the relationship.  They show themselves and others that they can enjoy each other’s company, even when the pleasure of intercourse is not available to them.  This sort of fidelity and chastity before marriage ensures greater fidelity and chastity during marriage.  Whether because of pregnancy, or illness, or physical separation, every couple must abstain at different times during marriage; and so acquiring self-mastery before marriage fosters greater and easier fidelity during those times.

Chastity before marriage—and, consequently, chastity during marriage—have been undermined by one fact more than any other:  the widespread availability of contraception.  In modern culture, contraception seems one of the chief enablers of sexual misconduct.  There were fewer teenage pregnancies, fewer abortions, and a lesser incidence of sexually transmitted diseases before contraception became widely available.  Contraception has given people a false sense of security:  that they can engage in intercourse apart from the obligations of marriage and children.  Of course, contraceptives do not actually remove these possibilities, because contraceptives do not always achieve their intended purpose:  instead, contraceptives have simply fostered the culture which considers abortion as “Plan B”, to be turned to when contraceptives fail.  This is the c culture which has seen fifty (“five-zero”) million abortions since Roe v. Wade.  What would those fifty million individuals have accomplished, and contributed to our society, Church, and world if their lives hadn’t been taken from them?

If we were to take the Holy Bible seriously, it would seem that God has a preference for children.  After all, His first command in the Bible was not “You shall not have strange gods before me”:  that command comes in the second book of the Bible.  In the beginning, in the Book of Genesis, in chapter one, God commands the first humans:  “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”  God did not say, “Be sterilized and use chemicals to destroy your fertility.”  God shows us that fertility is a blessing.  Modern man believes that fertility is a disease.  That’s why so many today insist that taxpayers fund contraceptives as part of what they call “health care”.  More specifically, this past week’s decision from the federal government described access to contraceptives as “preventive care”, a phrase worthy of George Orwell.  “Preventive care”:  what actually is being prevented?  A tumor, or a cyst, or a cancer, or a human life?  Which of these four is not like the others?  This debate is reminiscent of Catholic posts on the Internet during debates before the passage of Obamacare:  Catholics pointed out that “Abortion is not health care, because pregnancy is not a disease.”

Of course, couples on occasion may have good reasons to postpone childbearing, at least for a while.  Many Catholics don’t see why couples may not use contraceptives to help them space their children or to delay childbearing if good reasons exists.  They consider contraception a marvelous invention of technology, and see no reason not to use it.  They find the Catholic counsel of periodic abstinence, which demands the strength of fidelity and chastity, to be irrational.

Among other reasons, Natural Family Planning is without the health risks and immoral status of contraceptives.  In fact, too many Americans are unaware that what are often called “contraceptives” are nothing of the kind.  By definition, a “contra-ceptive” prevents conception.  But to give just one example, the IUD is not a contraceptive.  It is an abortifacient: that is, it works by causing an early-term abortion.  The IUD prevents the fertilized egg, the new human person, from implanting himself or herself in the wall of the uterus.  Many popular forms of the Pill work the same way.  So those who are opposed to abortion, and those interested in protecting the well being of women—not to mention unborn children—would certainly not want to use or promote these abortifacients.
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Christians need to be ready and willing to explain why the virtues of fidelity, patience, and discernment are defining characteristics that strengthen marriage.  Men and women today are tired of unfaithfulness.  They are tired of shallow and brief relationships.  They crave something more meaningful, something on which they can rely.  Young people are sick of divorce. God challenges Christians, who have the benefit of His wisdom through Scripture and Tradition, to live chaste lives, and to form loving marriages and families.  The ideas and beliefs of modern secular society lead people literally nowhere.  Marriage according to God’s design, is a path that leads to Heaven.

2nd Sunday in Ord. Time [B] - 15 JAN 2012

The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
I Samuel 3:3-10,19 ─ Corinthians 6:13-15, 17-20 ─ John 1:35-42
January 15, 2012

“…you are not your own”
[1 Corinthians 6:19]

The labor of our spiritual life begins very simply.  In today’s Gospel, we hear how it began for Andrew and his brother Peter.  Notice what Jesus declares at the end of this passage.  Notice how Jesus shifts from the present tense to the future tense:  “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas” - which is translated Peter.  Much later in the Gospel, Jesus says to him, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church….  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven….”

What do these shifts in Jesus’ speech—from the present, to the future—tell us about the Christian spiritual life?  What we hear about Jesus calling Andrew’s brother, Simon Peter, is true of your vocation as well.  Even if you are already married and have been for many years (or in my case, have been ordained for several years), this teaching is still a part of what’s going on today in your spiritual life.  To sum it up in one phrase, Jesus is teaching us that He calls you to follow Him in stages, over time.  This fact demands two particular traits from you as a Christian:  discernment, and patience.

Throughout your vocation, you need a discerning ear and eye.  Last Sunday on the Epiphany, we heard about the three wise men following the Lord’s call to adore Jesus.  Pope Benedict in his Epiphany homily pointed out that the three wise men were watchful men, capable of reading God’s signs, his soft and penetrating language.  They could see God working even through nature:  through the guidance of a star.  If, however, we expect from God a phone call, an email, a text or a Twitter, we are never likely to hear His Word.[1]  Part of discernment is recognizing in what places and settings we’re more likely to hear God’s voice, and actually going there, to spend time listening for Him to speak.

Throughout your vocation, you also need patience.  God doesn’t always speak when we want Him to.  God calls us only step by step, according to His own timetable.  He doesn’t reveal the complete plan that He has in store for our vocation.  For example, if you are a married person, just imagine yourself back on the morning of your wedding day.  Imagine that God were to wake you at 5:00 a.m. that morning, and show you (by means of some divine DVD player) a video of all the challenges of your future marriage:  all the hardships, arguments, tears, worry, and disease experienced between spouses.  What would that comprehensive view of your future have done to the odds of you getting up and walking before the altar?  Isn’t it a sign of God’s providential wisdom that He call us to follow Him only one step at a time?
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This year, there are six Sundays in Ordinary Time before Lent.  Through the Scriptures and homilies of these six Sundays, I’d like to focus your attention on the two sacraments often called “sacraments of vocation”:  that is, Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders.  In the rest of today’s homily, reflect on how a young man in the early 21st century would experience God calling Him to enter the seminary.  Now, you might be tempted not to listen to what follows:  maybe you’ve been married for forty years and don’t think it applies to you to reflect on a young man considering the seminary.  But do you have grandsons?  Do you have young men who live in your neighborhood?  Is it possible that God would call one to enter the seminary?  Is it possible that God would call him, by means of you, just as he called Simon Peter by means of Andrew?  Consider the following true story:
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Joe is a chemistry major in his senior year of college.[2]  In the past, his spiritual life has been limited to Sunday Mass and simple prayers.  However, over the last several months, something new has been happening.  He is beginning to notice a subtle, peaceful feeling at Mass.  During the week, he senses a desire for this experience.  So he begins to attend daily Mass.  Between classes, he stops in at the Newman Center to spend quiet time in prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

His experience grows.  Along with the peace, he begins to notice a stillness and silence inside of him during his prayer.  His mind is quiet and clear.  Joe experiences the things that were worrying and burdening him before he entered the church to pray very differently during prayer.  They are OK by the time prayer ends.  When he leaves the Newman Center, he is often grateful, enthusiastic, and joyfully surprised about what is happening in his soul, because he knows that he is not causing this.  The only thing that he does is to desire that peaceful presence.

After some weeks, a thought begins to surface—the thought of the priesthood.  When he is experiencing the peaceful silence and stillness during prayer, the thought of the priesthood comes to his mind.  This thought often leads him to… feel it would be a blessing to be Christ’s instrument.

But there are other days when he feels different.  Because he is a busy student who is involved in many things, his days get quite full.  Sometimes, he does not go to Mass or spend time in prayer.  On these days, he often experiences much burden and sometimes, within that burden, the thought of the priesthood returns.  But there is a difference.  On these days, he does not imagine himself as a priest; rather, he focuses on what he would have to give up:  wife, children and career.  More immediately, he dislikes the idea of not having a girlfriend.  These thoughts leave his mind confused and racing, with a feeling of pressure to figure out his vocation, and with a fear that God may really want him to be a priest.  Most of all, he feels uncomfortable talking to someone else about the possibility of priesthood.

These two contrasting experiences continue, more or less, for several months, so Joe eventually shares his experiences with a priest he respects.  Throughout their 30-minute conversation, Father John tells him four significant things.

First, Father John assures him that what is happening in him is God’s choice to show His love for His son Joe.  God is drawing Joe into a deeper relationship.  In other words, God is making these things happen.

Second, Father John tells Joe not to fear what God wants—whatever it may be for Joe—because God is his Father, who wants only what is best for Joe.

Third, Father John encourages Joe to remain faithful to his prayer and to attend Mass more often, when possible.

Fourth, in those times when the thought of priesthood makes Joe afraid, Father John encourages Joe to peacefully and continuously long, inside his soul, for the peaceful presence of Christ, and to say over and over again to Jesus and to God the Father, “I miss you.”

Father John assures him that in those times of fear and confusion, it may feel like his world is turning upside down, and that he has all kinds of problems.  But in fact Joe has only one “problem”:  he is missing the Presence of God.  Joe misses the Lord; Joe misses what he has some to desire most in life.  So, at those times, he simply needs to want the Lord’s Presence, instead of wanting to figure stuff out.
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Jesus calls you to follow Him in stages, over time.  As a Christian, this demands from you discernment, and patience.  As we prepare for Lent, ask the Lord for an increase in the ability to hear His Word, and a willingness to wait for His Word, so as to follow Jesus more closely.

[1] See also the Lord calling Elijah by a soft and gentle sound, rather than by wind, fire or earthquake [I Kings 19:1-18].
[2] This section is slightly adapted from the booklet “Is Jesus Calling You to Be a Catholic Priest?  A Helpful Guide”, by the Rev. Thomas J. Richter (Huntington, N.Y.: National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, 2008), 4-5.