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Month: November 2019

Beyond Violence

Beyond Violence

Earlier this month, I gave the following reflection during a prayer vigil at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cheyenne.

I imagine that many of you have heard of Immaculée Ilibagiza.  She wrote the book Left to Tell about her experience of surviving the genocide in Rwanda. Many of her family members were brutally murdered. A few years after the genocide, she returned to Rwanda and visited the prison where her brother’s killer was being held. The prison guard brought out the killer who had used a machete to open the skull of her brother.

As the killer knelt in front of her, the prison guard expected her to take out vengeance. He wanted her to spit on him and mistreat him. Instead, she forgave him.  She was convinced that the only way for the nation of Rwanda to find peace was through forgiveness.  And she wrote that the key to stopping violence was not through more violence toward the killers, but through forgiveness.

The world is scarred by so much violence – by the violence of genocide, the killing of unborn children, senseless shootings, terrorist acts and ongoing wars. All people of good will are against violence.  But people disagree in how to end violence. Many people support violence toward those on death row.  In the United States, about 53% favor capital punishment and 42% oppose it.

Immaculée Ilibagiza believes that forgiveness is the way to stop violence. Pope John Paul II who lived through the holocaust and atrocities of WWII said, “Violence begets violence.”  He advocated for an end to capital punishment.

If we sanction capital punishment by our laws, then we are teaching our children that violence is a legitimate response to crime.  Not only that, we are saying that it is okay to kill people on death row, even though there may have been a mistake in their trial.  Since 1973, 156 people on death row were exonerated. Thus, for every ten executed, one was found innocent and released. So how many were killed without having the chance to be exonerated?

Opposing the Death Penalty is an anti-violence cause and a pro-life issue. Every human life is sacred. The dignity of each person is rooted in creation and redemption. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and Christ died to redeem all people. All people have an inviolable dignity – from the child in the womb, to the undocumented person fleeing violence, to the person trapped in addiction and homeless on the streets, to the person on death row.

No one can take this God-given dignity away. Not even the person who has committed the most heinous crime can renounce his dignity. Even if he says, “I am worthless.  I am scum because of what I have done.” That is not true.  His God-given dignity is sacred. It still remains. Pope Francis has officially affirmed this sacred gift by writing, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and the [Church] works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267)

By sanctioning Capital Punishment at the hands of the state, we are implying that some criminals have lost their God-given dignity.  Consequently, this erodes the dignity of every other human being. It lessens our respect for the sacred dignity of those with disabilities, the refugee, the terminally ill or the child in the womb. To stand for life is to stand for the dignity of every human person.

We live in a violent culture, a culture that constantly violates human dignity. Taking another life is a way of extending the violence. Yet, violence begets violence. This is true for the child in the womb, but also for the person on death row.  The antidote to violence is forgiveness. Perhaps this is why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.”  (Mt. 5:38)

Obviously, we have a right and a duty to protect the common good.  So dangerous criminals need to be imprisoned for the safety of society. But we should not lower ourselves their level by reacting to violence with more violence. With his new commandments, Jesus was saying, Do not react like a criminal, but act like the Father.”

 This one of his greatest lessons. He never reacted to how he was treated.  He didn’t hang on the cross and say, “Father, look at how violently I have been treated? Strike them down. Wipe them out.  Show them who is more powerful.” Instead of reacting with vengeance, he acted with the Father’s mercy. He said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” (Lk. 23:34)  Likewise, he taught us to act like children of the Father.  He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; so that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the just and the wicked alike” (Mt 5:44-45).

Mercy is non-negotiable in the Gospel.  We fail to be disciples of Jesus if we do not imitate his mercy. In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis wrote, “At times . . . We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance.  This is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. . . . We should always consider inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy.”  (Amoris Laetitia, 310-311)

 When we say the only way to deal with people who have committed horrendous crimes is to execute them, we doubt the omnipotence of God and his mercy. We look at them and say, “They’ll never change.  They are hopeless cases.” But God can do all things in his omnipotence. No one is beyond his omnipotent mercy. If we give up on a criminal, then in effect we are saying that evil is stronger than grace. We have given up on redemption for that person.  We doubt the omnipotence of God and his mercy. We have lost faith in the grace of the cross and new life of the resurrection.

At times, all of us fail to live this way. We give up on redemption or mercy for our enemies, corrupt leaders, even ourselves. That is why we are gathered in a church tonight.  We need to pray constantly for the Lord’s help.  And we need to look to people like Immaculée Ilibagiza who show us that what Jesus asks of us is not impossible.  Not only that, it is the only way forward.  Forgiveness is the antidote to violence, and it brings healing to the family members of victims.

In 1995, Bud Welch lost his only daughter Julie in the Oklahoma City bombing.  Bud has become an ardent and persistent supporter of the abolition of the death penalty.  He said, “You don’t heal by escalating violence and by using the death penalty we escalate violence – and that violence is sponsored by the state.”  (More on his story can be found at this link Bud Welch.)

Instead of reacting with vengeance, he is acting with the Lord’s mercy. This is the way beyond violence.  This is the way to healing for those wounded by violence.

The DNA of Christ

The DNA of Christ

This Sunday we honor Jesus Christ as the king of the universe, yet, we listen to a gospel passage in which he is mocked on the cross. (Lk. 23:35-43) We worship a crucified king.

In the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer we will pray: “Lord, holy Father . . . you anointed your Only Begotten Son, as eternal Priest and King of all creation, so that by offering himself on the altar of the Cross, he might accomplish the mysteries of human redemption.”  Jesus is the Eternal Priest who sacrificed himself on the cross. He is the King of all Creation, “making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col. 1:20)  This is the Catholic way of honoring the Lord Jesus – to view his kingship by staring at the crucified Christ on the Cross.

What does it mean to worship a Crucified King who is the Eternal Priest?  How well do we live that mystery?  In what practical way does this affect our daily lives?  For example, many people are struggling with illness.  Others are suffering because of natural disasters, poverty, violence, or abuse.  Faith in the crucified King affects our experience.  It changes the way we pray through suffering. It transforms our understanding of death.

People who suffer in faith illustrate this mystery. They show us the beauty and transforming power of the crucified king. Several years ago, I met young man named Brent, who had muscular dystrophy. Brent was 16 years old when I first met him. He was confined to a wheelchair, but he had an amazing attitude.  He was always upbeat.

Brent enjoyed building model airplanes. It was a way for him to keep active, to occupy his mind and his muscles. But he could not stop the progression of muscular dystrophy. He died a slow death as his muscles continued to deteriorate.  He finally suffocated and died at age 27. His parents were amazing. They cared for their son with constant love and patience.

What does the feast of Christ the King have to say about Brent’s illness and death? What does it tell us about people like Brent who suffer with great patience, or his parents who carried him on that journey?  One thing we know for certain is that Jesus accompanied Brent in his suffering. As a crucified Messiah, he chose to enter into human suffering. Jesus didn’t save himself. He conquered suffering and death by entering into it, not by escaping it.

Three times Jesus was challenged and taunted to “save himself” from suffering. The leaders jeered at him and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Chosen One, the Christ of God.”  The soldiers mocked him too: “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”  Even one of the criminals ridiculed him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” (Lk. 23:35-39) Precisely because Jesus did not save himself from suffering and death, he conquered it. As one spiritual writer said, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it.  He came to fill it with his presence.” ~ Paul Claudel

Jesus suffered together with Brent.  The suffering Christ empowered him with his presence. Jesus filled him with his own patience, strength and peace. The crucified and Risen Lord enters into the darkest moments of human life and fills us with his presence.

That is what it means to worship Christ as King of the universe. It means to believe that nothing is beyond his reach, even the darkest moments of existence. It means to believe that in our darkness, he abides in us and uses us so that others might contemplate his merciful suffering and victorious love. I learned about Christ the King by contemplating his presence in Brent and in his parents.

Now, the Crucified King is also the Risen Lord in glory. As the head of the Body of the Church, he is forever infusing his mystical Body with his love.  At Baptism, we were grafted onto the vine of Christ so that we might be nourished with his Spirit. In the Eucharist, the Blood of Christ is a transfusion that reinvigorates our hearts.

The ongoing infusion of Christ’s Love will inevitably bring us into the Resurrection. As St. Paul said, “He is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead.” (Col. 1:18)  Jesus’ ultimate victory came through the cross and flowered in the resurrection. What does that say about being a success in life?

 It means to see the sacrifice of Brent’s parents as success. They were successful because they imitated Christ on the cross. Jesus challenged his disciples to live their lives for others when he said, “Anyone who saves his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

It’s a strange formula for success. We usually equate success with making lots of money, having a high-paying job, driving a fancy car, wearing nice clothes or being popular. We have a list of the wealthiest people in the world. We keep track of the highest paid athletes. In our world, success is defined by what you have, not by what you give.

But the crucified Jesus defined success by how much you give, by the way that you lose yourself.  Losing your life is the way to success.  Brent’s parents lost their lives for the sake of Christ, as they cared for their son. “Anyone who saves his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it.”

We are called to pour out our lives for others. You might say that this is our DNA from being created in the likeness of Christ. Since all things were created in his likeness, we are true to our DNA inherited from Jesus when we lose our lives for others, when we are other-centered. Those who live like are being true to their DNA inherited from Christ. They are on a certain journey to the Resurrection. They will share in the final victory of Christ the King.

Ultimately, this is pure gift. So in the Letter to the Colossians St. Paul says, “Let us give thanks to the Father for having made you worthy to share the lot of the saints in light.  He rescued us from power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Through him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:12-14)

How do you see this mystery of Christ the King at work in you?  Surely, you often have selflessly given of yourself, or have been patient in suffering, or have shown immense generosity for others who are down and out.  Give thanks for the grace of living in the DNA of Christ.

How do you need to grow in generosity by losing your life for the sake of Christ?  Certainly, each of us needs to grow in generosity or selflessness, patience in suffering, and the mercy of the crucified Lord.  Ask for that grace in prayer and as you receive the Eucharist. We can only live such love by humbly receiving it from the Lord.

Perseverance

Perseverance

In the trials of life, are you living with perseverance?  Are you staying strong each day as a faithful disciple?  Are you persisting in prayer and enduring in faith?  World events are terribly disturbing, so it is tempting to give up.

This week there was a school shooting in California where two students were killed, and the shooter killed himself.  School kids have shooting drills because this has become a regularized tragedy. Because of violence and insecurity in Africa this year, more than 9,000 schools were shut down in eight countries – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Mali, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.

Millions of innocent people are subject to violence and death in Syria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Bolivia, Hong Kong and the list goes on.  But when they flee for safety, often they are met with disdain.  We see a stubborn disregard for the human dignity of the least. Many are indifferent to the victims of human trafficking, others fail to protect the unborn or undocumented, or they are deaf to the cries of poor families desperately seeking the basic necessities of life.

Jesus cited all kinds of suffering when people asked him about the end-times.  Then he urged them to have perseverance despite violence, war and tragedy.  He said, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; . . . they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons. . . . You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”  (Lk. 21:9, 12, 17-19)

In the trials of life, are you living with perseverance? Are you staying strong each day as a faithful disciple? “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”  What is the secret to perseverance?

First of all, we learn perseverance from Jesus. Last week St. Paul encouraged us by saying, “The Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one . . . . May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ.” (2 Thes. 3:5)  Paul must have pondered the amazing endurance of Jesus in the passion.  So he spoke of the ‘endurance’ of Christ.  The same Greek word is translated as either endurance or perseverance.

One dictionary defines it as “resolute continuance in a course of action.”  It means to stay the course no matter what, even if everyone else gives up.  Perseverance means steadfastness, especially like you see in Christ. In the Book of Revelation, St. John describes it as a strength that comes from communion with Jesus.  He wrote, I, John . . . share with you the distress, the kingdom, and the perseverance we have in Jesus.” (Rev. 1:9)

We learn perseverance from Jesus, and we receive it from him. When I am tempted to give up and when I don’t feel like praying, often it’s because I am too focused on all the problems. Then I need to re-focus on Christ by renewing my prayer. I need to renew my communion with the Lord.

Perseverance is not something we can conjure up by ourselves.          Rather, Christ gives us his enduring strength in prayer, in the Eucharist and in his Word. This word only appears twice in all four Gospels, here and in Luke’s explanation of the Word that falls on rich soil. In that passage Jesus says, “As for the seed that fell on rich soil, they are the ones who when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart and bear fruit through perseverance.” (Lk. 8:15)

People with perseverance let the Word take root in them. No matter what, they take time to listen to the Lord. Even in sickness or tragedy or isolation, they persevere in prayer. Are you struggling with perseverance? Are you tempted to give up hope in your faith life? Or are you tempted to despair because of the chaos in the world? Then renew your commitment to prayer and the Word of God. Ask the Holy Spirit for the ‘endurance of Christ.’

I have been carefully reviewing the Gospels. I am on a subcommittee for the Translation of the Scriptures for the USCCB, and we are in the process of reviewing the New Testament translation.  Since June, I have spent 1-2 hours a day carefully reading the gospels. I have been constantly reflecting on the words of Jesus. It keeps me in a steady conversation with Christ.

I have a different attitude when I maintain a good habit of prayer. The problems remain, but my perspective is hopeful and peaceful. Then I see myself as serving the Lord and not working by myself.  It’s his Church, not mine.  I’m a worker in the Lord’s vineyard.

Parents, you have so many concerns about your children. But remember, they are God’s children first. Pray for them, and every day put them in God’s hands. If you try to take care of them all by yourself, you will become weary. But if you see them as gifts from God who loves them more than you do, then you will have the ‘endurance of Christ.’ Care for them inside of your communion with Christ.

Another main source of perseverance is the example of the saints. Reading stories of the saints always inspires me to keep going. Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne. She had untiring perseverance.

Born in France, she joined the convent when she was nineteen.  Soon the French Revolution began and the convent was closed, so she took care of the poor and the sick, opened a school for homeless kids and risked her life helping priests in the underground. Eventually, she came with four nuns to the United States to work among the Indians. She was 49 years old, and founded the first free school for girls west of the Mississippi.  But cold and hunger drove them out, and the school failed.

Then she went to Florrisant, Missouri where she founded the first Catholic Native American School.  Father DeSmet met her there in 1823.  He said he had never seen a soul more ardent in its love of Our Lord. At 72 years of age, she was in poor health and retired. But she went to a newly founded Indian mission in Kansas and dedicated her time to prayer. The Indians named her ‘Woman who prays always.’ (pp. 359-360, Saint of the Day)

People saw in St. Rose Philippine two characteristics – perseverance in hardship and persistence in prayer.  The two go together.  She had perseverance only because she was a ‘Woman who prays always.’ She stayed in close communion with God, so she had the ‘endurance of Christ.’

In the trials of life, are you living with perseverance? Are you staying strong each day as a faithful disciple? Jesus said, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”  (Lk. 21:17-19) He could say that because he was secure in the Father’s love. At every Eucharist, that same love is poured into our hearts.

Seminary Trip

Seminary Trip

This weekend nine young men are going to Conception Seminary in Missouri.  They are accompanied by Fr. Steve Titus, Vocation Director, and Fr. Hiep Nguyen, Associate Vocation Director.  They will experience the lifestyle of seminarians and discern whether the Lord is calling them to priesthood.  Please pray for them.

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