Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Hollywood’s Pope: Little Faith on the Small Screen

June 29, 2016

This fall, HBO will begin airing an eight-episode miniseries imagining the first American to be elected pope. While this drama may or may not attract viewers, I predict “The Young Pope” will fail to truly capture the Catholic Faith and Church. I had similar doubts when Showtime floated a similar premise in 2013. (“The Vatican” was to star the actor who played Adolf Hitler in the movie “Downfall” but none of its episodes ever aired.) The creator and director of “The Young Pope,” Paolo Sorrentino, describes what his new series will be about:

Jude Law stars as “the complex and conflicted” Pope Pius XIII in “The Young Pope

The clear signs of God’s existence. The clear signs of God’s absence. How faith can be searched for and lost. The greatness of holiness, so great as to be unbearable when you are fighting temptations and when all you can do is to yield to them. The inner struggle between the huge responsibility of the Head of the Catholic Church and the miseries of the simple man that fate (or the Holy Spirit) chose as Pontiff. Finally, how to handle and manipulate power in a state whose dogma and moral imperative is the renunciation of power and selfless love towards one’s neighbor.”

Though some are more optimistic, I have low hopes for this series. The Catholic Church has beautiful stories to tell, but “The Young Pope’s” trailer and the quote above telegraph brooding agnosticism free of Christian joy. “The Young Pope’s” Pius XIII is reportedlya conflicted man who must find a way to balance his ultra-conservative views with his immense compassion for the sick and the poor.” In other words, Catholic teachings will be falsely pitted against Christian love. Which one do you imagine will prevail in our hero?

A Vatican TV drama could be made with either the cynicism of “House of Cards” or the hopeful idealism of “The West Wing.” Which set of plot-lines below (“A” or “B”) do you think we could expect to see these days in a major miniseries about the papacy?

The Dinner Guest

A:  The pope invites to dinner a priest-friend from seminary. At table, the priest asks the pope to lift the “impossible burden” of celibacy. The pope sympathizes but he explains (citing solely pragmatic reasons) that there is nothing he can do. By the meal’s end, the priest is asking to be released from the priesthood so that he might marry a former nun with whom he has fallen in love (and sin.) The pope, sadly subdued, grants his second request.

B:  The pope invites to dinner a Roman beggar who once served as a priest. At dessert, the pope asks him to hear his confession. “I cannot do that,” the man replies, “I have renounced the priesthood. My priestly faculties have been taken away from me. I am no longer a priest.” The pope answers, “Once a priest, always a priest…  As Bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church I can restore your priestly faculties to you…” The man’s priesthood is restored and he hears the pope’s confession. The priest is then assigned to the church where he had previously begged with a special responsibility for the poor who seek alms at the church door.

The Persecuted Refugees

A:  As the cause advances to beatify Pius XII (the pope who reigned during the Second World War) the current pope personally investigates his predecessor’s record in the Vatican’s Secret Archives. When the pope concludes that Pius XII should have done more to save persecuted Jews from the Nazis, he places the entire beatification project on (permanent) hold.

B:  The pope intervenes to help when a religious minority is threatened by an evil state. He facilitates the safe escape of thousands, even housing refugees within Rome’s convents and monasteries and at the Vatican itself. When peace returns, a world-famous agnostic scientist declares, “Only the Catholic Church protested against this onslaught on liberty. Up till then I had not been interested in the Church, but today I feel a great admiration for the Church, which alone has had the courage to struggle for spiritual truth and moral liberty.”

A Target of Controversy

A:  After the pope describes the theory of evolution as being “more than just a hypothesis,” right-wing Catholic extremists plot to kill him for teaching heresy. After the nearly-successful bomb plot is thwarted, the pope laments the need to ‘lead our Church out of the Dark Ages.’

B:  A Muslim gunman critically-wounds the pope as he greets crowds of pilgrims in St. Peter’s square. After the pope’s recovery from four gunshot wounds, he visits his would-be assassin in prison, enters his cell, and forgives him.

Which of these plot-lines could more believably appear on television? While the “A” stories above are my own works of fiction, each “B” story relates a true incident. The episode of the dinner guest who heard Pope John Paul II’s confession is told in an article by K. D’Encer entitled “The Priest, the Beggar and the Pope.” It was Pope Pius XII who hid and helped thousands of Jews during WWII, and the agnostic scientist who praised the Catholic Church for defending his people was Albert Einstein. St. John Paul II did call evolution “more than just a hypothesis” but no reactionary Catholic extremists tried to kill him for expressing this non-heretical view. In 1983, Pope John Paul visited Mehmet Ali Ağca, the man who had tried to kill him two years prior, and forgave him face-to-face.

This is not to say that a truly great drama about the papacy would or should ignore the realities of darkness, sin, and division. But secular treatments of the Catholic Church in this world trace her shadows without acknowledging her light. As the Latin adage says,  “No one gives what he does not have.” (Nemo dat quod non habet.) Lacking a well-formed faith, no screenwriter can be expected to do justice to Jesus’ Church in its complex but saving reality.

Annual Appeal Videos

November 19, 2015

The story of a new, young priest, Rev. Billy Dodge.

 

About the La Crosse Diocese’s work with social ministries & concerns.

 

The good work of the diocesan TV Mass.

Thoughts About FOX’s “Lucifer”

August 7, 2015

So the FOX network plans to launch this new show in 2016:

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but previews for movies and TV shows these days tell us plenty about what to expect. Based on this trailer and its synopsis, I’d like to share my first thoughts about FOX’s Lucifer.

What “Lucifer” Gets Right
Giving Their Devil His Due

Our first encounter with FOX’s Lucifer is in a form such as we should expect him to appear. No horns, tail, or pitchfork. Nothing in his appearance to make us flee from him in horror. He’s attractive, wealthy, well dressed, and speaks with sophistication. He drives through the night self-satisfied, solitary, and yet pleased to have others serve him and line up eagerly at his door. His popular club is named “Lux” (Latin for “Light.”) “And no wonder, for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14) He draws many to himself by means of human sensuality.

His name, “Lucifer Morningstar,” is drawn from Isaiah 14:12.
Church Fathers wrote that “Lucifer” was never the devil’s proper (or “God-given”) name but that it signifies the glorious state from which he fell. However, I give the show creators credit for a pretty good name choice.

FOX’s Lucifer is a denouncer, reviling “this human stain” and “your corrupt little organization.” This is in keeping with him being ‘the accuser of the brethren, who night and day accuses them before God’ (Revelation 12:10) as he did with righteous Job. (Job 1:9-11, 2:4-5) In fact, his most well-known titles highlight this trait: “Devil” comes from the Greek word for “Slanderer,” while “Satan” is Hebrew for “Adversary” or “Accuser.”

Lucifer is willing to transgress laws whenever it benefits him. Perhaps this is why FOX’s Lucifer will premiere in 2016 driving with expired tags on his license plate (but it’s more likely just a production mistake.)

What “Lucifer” Gets Wrong
The Devil They Know is Better
Than the Devil They Don’t

If there were people in the entertainment world who didn’t believe that Adolf Hitler really existed, I could imagine someone reenvisioning him to be some TV drama’s charismatic hero. Many people would be understandably offended and concerned about what evils could flow from presenting the leader of the Third Reich — a spreader of hate and murderer of millions — as primetime television’s next charming protagonist. Ordinarily, aware of Godwin’s Law, I would avoid drawing comparisons to Hitler. Yet as bad as Hitler was, the devil is much worse. The worst thing the show’s creators will get wrong about the devil is that he is certainly not, and will never be, ‘a demon with a heart of gold.’

When a young, dispirited pop star returns to Lucifer he counsels her, “Pull yourself together,” and comforts her. Following her sudden death, he looks on her lifeless body with shock and concern. He asks of the LAPD homicide detective, “What is your corrupt little organization going to do about this?” Later, he tells a female confidante, “Someone out there needs to be punished!” She replies, “Stop caring, you’re the devil.” Indeed, this does not fit with his true character. Unable to strike out at the Almighty, the devil attacks the human race God loves. The devil would not mourn the death of a young woman lost in her sins, he would desire her unhappy end and encourage it, as he did the suicide of Judas Iscariot. The devil hates us all.

Lucifer meets the police detective again and offers his assistance: “We should be out there punishing those responsible. Come on, I’ll help you.” However, the real devil does not accuse sinners and will their damnation out of a devotion to truth or justice. He tempts and condemns out of envy, to prove that others are no better than himself. “[B]y the envy of the devil, death entered the world…” (Wisdom 2:24) Jesus said of him, “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

If you want to see something of what the devil is like, I suggest Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. (*) Heath Ledger described the Joker as “an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown,” and his portrayal of evil will be long remembered. However, I doubt the same will be true for FOX’s Lucifer.

Why I Doubt “Lucifer” Will Last
The Devil Has No New Tricks

What type of show is Lucifer? It’s a sometimes light-hearted police procedural with supernatural themes and a “will-they-or-won’t-they” romantic subplot. FOX’s Lucifer is basically like The X-Files with angels instead of aliens. However, I’ll be surprised if it survives beyond its first season. I am dubious about how original and well-written the show will be since it borrows so much from previous works:

— We saw charming, talented eccentrics tagging along with cops to solve crimes in The Mentalist, Castle, and Monk.

— We saw snarky jerks growing in their humanity in CommunityHouse, and Sherlock.

— We saw a fallen angel embracing human life and love in Los Angeles in Nicholas Cage’s City of Angels.

— We saw a brazen angel in human form magically attracting women in John Travolta’s Michael.

— We saw a female love interest be uniquely impervious to a dangerous hunk’s powers with Bella and Edward in Twilight.

— We even saw a demonic vanity license plate (“BAD 1″) in Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley’s Bedazzled.

— At least FOX’s Lucifer plays piano instead of a mean fiddle.

Will these recycled elements gel into a successful hit? Will solving crimes, landing insults, exposing hypocrites, titillating women, and facing-down CGI angels and demons be a long-winning formula? I’m skeptical, but either way, I don’t plan to be watching.

How We Should Respond
Resist the Devil and He Will Flee

In the preface to his spiritually insightful and quite funny book about demonic temptation, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

As it is with devils, so I think for this show. In the coming year, I expect it to attract more heat and noise of controversy, and I suspect the show’s creators will welcome the free publicity. We may be told that everyone must watch the series in order to form an opinion — as if forms of entertainment were somehow entitled to our time and focus. On one hand, we do not want to lend this show inordinate attention. On the other hand, ignoring its existence would be a mistake. We should respond to FOX’s Lucifer with both true teaching and prayer.

FOX Lucifer ImageJust like with the inaccurate history of Dan Brown’s
The Da Vinci Code, this regrettable new TV show will bring with it
opportunities for catechesis; to teach about angels and demons, temptation and discernment, and the war that is fought for every human soul. (Teaching can be as easy as sharing an article like this one.) We can discourage others from tuning-in but, whether we like it or not, questions will come our way and we should be well-prepared to answer with the truth.

We must also pray. In 2012, an 24-year-old gunman with red-dyed hair, reportedly self-identifying as “the Joker,” killed 12 people and injured 70 in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater showing the third film of the Batman trilogy. On the human level, the responsibility for this crime lies with its perpetrator, but just as a movie can inspire an unstable person to imitate a villain, so a show about the devil can both lead the unwary into exploring the occult or subtly persuade others that the devil’s just a myth. Against such evils we should pray; not only for the impressionable viewers among the audience of millions, but for the creators of such art itself.

Spiritual connections are mysterious and rarely certain, but dabbling with satanic things can open doors to evil and burn us. Six months after the release of The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger, the actor who had immersed himself into the persona of the demonic Joker, was dead from a drug overdose. At one infamous concert in 1969, during which an audience member was later killed by “Hell’s Angels” working security, The Rolling Stones’ performance of “Sympathy for the Devil” was interrupted by a fight and the song had to be restarted. At the time, Mick Jagger remarked onstage, “We’re always having—something very funny happens when we start that number.”

For the good of everyone involved, I will be praying that the cast and crew of FOX’s Lucifer may soon find themselves safely employed in other work and, if Lucifer ever comes to air, that its harm may be minimal and a better show may quickly take its place. I invite you to join me in praying for the same by invoking the help of St. Michael, who fought the devil and the demons out of Heaven. (Revelation 12:7-9)

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us
in battle,
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him we humbly pray;
and may you, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.   Amen.

Three Crosses Line Break

(*) — Like the devil, the Joker in The Dark Knight is a liar, telling incompatible tales about his scars. He loves fire, chaos, violence, and death. Alfred the butler says of him, “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker is an accuser of all: “See, their morals, their ‘code’…it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you, when the chips are down, these — ah — ‘civilized people?’ They’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” In the Joker’s climactic final scene, he is angered that those on neither ferry have blown the other up. Batman asks him, “What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you?!” The Joker tells Batman that they have been locked in “a battle for Gotham’s soul” while the camera films him, from an inverted perspective, having the likeness of one in an everlasting fall.

The Meaning of Life

June 9, 2015

Homer Simpson once had this exchange with “God”:

HomerGod, I’ve gotta ask you something.
What’s the meaning of life?

God:      Homer, I can’t tell you that.
HomerC’mon!
God:      You’ll find out when you die.
HomerI can’t wait that long!
God:      You can’t wait six months?
HomerNo, tell me now!
God:      Well, OK. The meaning of life is…

[The theme song and ending credits interrupt before we hear the answer.]

So what is the meaning of life? Why are we here, for what purpose do we exist?

Philosophers and TV writers may balk at the answer, but for Christians this is not an unanswerable riddle. Jesus Christ tells us what we are meant to do on earth (and likewise, in Heaven): first, to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,” and second, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40, Mark 12:30-31, & Luke 10:27-28)

Nothing is more important than this. This is what the Law, the Gospels, the prophets, and the saints are all about. Loving relationship with God and each other is the meaning of our lives. Of what enduring value is anything else if separated from this?

Blessed with knowing this precious knowledge, how are you going to live?

Broadcasting Our Faith — Thursday, 15th Week in Ordinary Time—Year I

July 14, 2011

At Easter time, my sister, Laura, and I used to watch documentaries about Christianity on TV. On the one hand, it was cool to see Jesus Christ talked about on channels like CNN and the History Channel. On the other hand, they couldn’t seem to present on the Christian faith without giving at least equal airtime to doubt. Laura and I enjoyed mocking their seemingly unrelenting skepticism:

“Jesus of Nazareth died nailed to a cross… or did He?”
“Every Easter, Christians around the world celebrate their belief that Jesus rose from the dead… or do they?”
“We’ll be right back after these words from our sponsors… or will we?”

Last night, ABC’s Nightline had an episode about the Virgin Mary and various apparition sites.  As I expected, the show both pleased me and annoyed me. I was pleased they had almost seven minutes about the shrine of Our Lady of Champion, near Green Bay—the first Church-approved Marian apparition site in our country. This was great, because the better the shrine is known the more good it shall do. On the other hand, I was annoyed by the show in various ways; for starters, by the Nightline episode’s title: “Beyond Belief.”  I was also annoyed by some of the things they included people saying.

I know that being interviewed isn’t easy. Expressing yourself like you want to can be hard, and video editing can take your words out of context, but here are some things they had people saying.  The doctor of a boy who was found to be free of leukemia the day after they visited the Green Bay shrine, was asked whether it was a miracle. He said, “The medicine did its job.… No matter what, God can’t work in the care of this child unless he works through somebody.” The narrator then referred to this metaphysical assertion, regarding what God can and can’t do, as “science.”

Later, the opinions of two, so-called experts were given. The first had written a book entitled From Jesus to Christ. (The book title was itself a red flag because it implies that the real historical Jesus of Nazareth got mythologized into the Christ of faith by later Christians. The Jesus of history and the Christ of our faith are one in the same.) She said, “When I think of the historical Mary, I think, first of all, of a very tired mom. Jesus could have been her fourth or fifth child for all we know. There’s absolutely no data in the New Testament itself to even tell us that.” (Actually, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke describe Mary as a virgin and Jesus as her firstborn Son.) A second expert said, “I’m not really big on the virgin birth as being scientifically viable.” (I wonder if he considers Jesus’ Resurrection, or any other miracle, to be scientifically viable.)

Then the show’s host, who seemed to me more ill-informed than malicious, went on to say, “After her death, early Christians hungry for information on the mother of their Messiah, began filling in Mary’s biography, with more stories like this; that she too was Immaculately Conceived, that her body was assumed to heaven like her Son’s, but the truth is that there’s no evidence to support any of these traditions.” First, he conflates the miracle of Jesus’ virgin birth with Mary’s Immaculate Conception. That’s a common error. Second, it’s just not true that there’s no evidence of Mary’s Assumption. For instance, the mere fact that Christians claim to have bones from all of the Holy Apostles, while no one at anytime anywhere has claimed to have hers, points to something. That’s not an incontrovertible proof for Mary’s Assumption, but it is some evidence for what all Christians were convinced about from the earliest times. The fact that people keep seeing her in compelling apparitions is some evidence too.

On the whole, I thought the show was a net plus; it did more good than harm, but it goes to show that we can’t rely upon the secular media to proclaim the Gospel for us. A person whose only source is secular television is not likely to come to faith. We need to step up as individuals and give witness to others about who God is and what He has done for us. As the psalmist says:

“Give thanks to the LORD, invoke his name;
make known among the nations his deeds.
Recall the wondrous deeds that he has wrought,
his signs, and the judgments he has uttered.”

Moses hesitated to speak to others about God. He said, “When I go to the children of Israel… what am I to tell them?” The Lord said, ‘Tell them, ‘I am who am.’ You shall tell them that I-Am-Who-Am sent you to them.’ Likewise, the one true God is asking you to witness to Him before others. Ask the Holy Spirit for the grace and you will soon receive the opportunity to witness to Jesus Christ and the good things He has done.

The Death of Bin Laden — May 3 — Sts. Philip and James

May 3, 2011

Osama Bin Laden has caused the deaths of countless people worldwide, he has spread hatred and division among peoples, and he has exploited religion for these purposes. He has done evil things, and now he is dead. How should we take this news? On Sunday night, some people celebrated in the streets of New York City and Washington, DC. Many people said with unrestrained delight that not a man, but a vermin, or a thing of pure evil, had been exterminated. But what is God’s opinion? What are His feelings on these events? God speaks to us in his words from Ezekiel 33:11: “Answer them: As I live, says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man’s conversion, that he may live.” If God does not rejoice in the death of the wicked, then neither should we.

Our U.S. Special Forces’ successful mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan rightly pleases us in many ways, like in how this achievement may prevent future terrorist attacks or the fact that al-Qaeda is now deprived of their most charismatic leader, but a Christian should not rejoice in the death of a sinner. It should be noted here, that Jesus the Prince of Peace loves peace, but He is not a pacifist. (A pacifist is someone who condemns the use of force in all situations.) Recall that Jesus did not drive out the money-changers and animal-sellers from the temple solely by endlessly asking them nicely. “He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area…” Force, even deadly force, is sometimes just and necessary, as I believe it was in Abbattabad this Sunday. And yet, even in wartime, we must not hate those who hate us, nor rejoice in the death of wrongdoers, not even when it’s Osama Bin Laden. The death of a sinner is a tragedy to the heart of Jesus, whose Divine Mercy and Love we celebrated on that same Sunday.

Perhaps someone might hear this and ask, “What difference does it make whether or not I hate Bin Laden or other people I’ve never met? Or what difference does it make whether or not I hate some of the people I actually know?” This is why it matters. You heard Jesus say to Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” No one comes to the Father, except through Him. Jesus is the way. He is our way to Heaven not just by our saying that He’s our Lord and Savior. Jesus is the way because He is the way we must become. No one comes to the Father in Heaven except they who conform themselves to the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if you die hating anyone in your heart, when you come to the gates of Heaven, whether the persons you hate are inside or not, you will not enter in; either you will be prevented from entering until your heart is cleaned to be like Christ’s, or you will never enter in, because you will have decided that you do not want Heaven’s ways, Heaven’s truths, or Heaven’s life.

You’re unlikely to hear the message of this homily said anywhere on TV. Imagine how the world would react if someone went on FOX News or CNN and suggested we shouldn’t hate Bin Laden. If you’ve heard anything like this homily since Sunday’s events, it was probably here at Columbus, through one of your teachers. What makes them different from the world is that they have been formed by the Gospel and a Catholic Christian worldview. Our Catholic Faith is the only thing that frees from the slavery of merely being a child of one’s time. It allows us to see the world more through Jesus’ eyes and to conform our hearts to His. This is important, because if you and I want to enter into Heaven someday, we must be converted into Him.

We Owe Him Big — Tuesday of Holy Week

April 20, 2011

When I was your age, there was a popular show on TV that I liked to watch that maybe you’ve heard of, the show was called The Simpsons. And though it was 20 years ago, I still remember my favorite episode: “Bart Gets an F.” This episode happens to be the most highly-rated Simpsons of all-time and Entertainment Weekly once picked it as the “31st Greatest Moment in Television [History].”

Bart Simpson was failing the fourth grade, and Mrs. Krabappel told him that if he failed his next exam he would forced to repeat the year. Bart tries to prepare by teaming up with Martin to study, but Martin abandons him. And so, the night before the exam, Bart has run out of time. Bart goes to his bedside, kneels down, and prays.

“I know I haven’t always been a good kid, but, if I have to go to school tomorrow, I’ll fail the test and be held back.  I just need one more day to study, Lord.  I need Your help! A teachers strike, a power failure, a blizzard… Anything that’ll cancel school tomorrow.  I know it’s asking a lot, but if anyone can do it, You can!  Thanking You in advance, Your pal, Bart Simpson.” Bart turns off the light, goes to bed, and outside, snowflakes begin to fall.

The next day, the whole world is white and deep. Kids are throwing snowballs, building forts, and riding sleds downhill. Even the adults are joining in the fun. Mayor Quimby solemnly proclaims, “I hereby declare this day to be Snow Day, the funnest day in the history of Springfield!” Bart grabs his sled and makes to rush out the front door, but when arrives at the door, Lisa’s ominous shadow blocks the way.

“I heard you last night, Bart.  You prayed for this.  Now your prayers have been answered.  I’m no theologian; I don’t know who or what God is exactly, all I know is He’s a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together, and you owe Him big.”

Bart pauses and says, “You’re right.” He removes his goggles from his head and hands them to Lisa. “I asked for a miracle, and I got it.  I gotta study, man!” He goes up stairs and studies like he’s never studied before, or probably since. The next day Bart passes his exam, and the fourth grade, with a D—, and mother Marge puts his test proudly on the fridge.

This weekend, we are going to have a lot of days off from school. Let us remember whom we have to thank for that, what he did for us, and what this long weekend is for. I know you will all be in church on Easter. Everybody’s in church on Easter. But Holy Thursday evening, and Good Friday afternoon, Jesus would enjoy your company at church then, too. If you can’t come at least think of Him then, and of what He’s done for us. Let’s not be like Judas, who was without gratitude, and was the first one out the door. Let us be like Bart Simpson, at least in this much, in showing our thanks to the God who saved our butts, because we owe Him big.

Gift of Self — 5th Sunday in Easter—Year C

May 2, 2010

I would like to begin today by telling the beautiful story of a gorgeous young woman named Leah Darrow. Leah grew up in a strong Catholic family in Oklahoma, but when she was in high school she says that her Catholicism started to get “fuzzy.”  By the time she was in college Leah says she had become a “Catholic But.” She would say, “I’m Catholic, but I don’t agree with the Church’s teaching on cohabitation,” or, “I’m Catholic but I don’t see the problem with a couple who love each sleeping together before their marriage… I think the Church is behind the times.”

One evening at college she saw a reality TV show called “Americas’s Next Top Model,” with Tyra Banks and thought to herself, “I’m pretty cute, maybe I could be on that show.” She tried out and got on, but lost the competition, yet she was resolved not to let her TV elimination mean the end of her modeling career. And she was rather successful.  She still recalls her excitement at receiving her first paycheck with a comma (a comma!) in it.

Leah eventually found herself at a photo-shoot high above 5th Avenue in New York that would change her life forever. She came to pose for an international magazine which wanted to help her develop a more risque image. They brought out a number of itsy-bitzy outfits for her to wear.  She picked one out and shooting began. Now Leah says that every model knows not to look at the flash when the photos are being taken (and she insists that she didn’t look at the flash) yet while she was posing, a vision flashed in her mind, three images in the span of perhaps a second or two. This is what she saw:

She saw herself standing in a large white space in the immodest outfit she was wearing. In this scene she wasn’t in pain, but she had the sense that she had died. In the second image Leah was looking up, holding out her open hands at her waist, with the knowledge that she was in the presence of God. In the third and final image, another white flash hit her eyes and Leah saw herself holding her hands all the way up, offering to God all that she had, but in that moment she realized that she was offering Him nothing. For her entire life up to that point, with all of the blessings, talents, and gifts that God had given her, she had wasted them all on herself. If she had died at that moment, Leah knew that she would have nothing to offer Christ.

She came back to reality when the photographer said, “Leah, Leah, are you OK?” She shook her head and said, “No, I can’t.” He said, “Ok, we can go over here.” And she said, “No, I can’t .”  She ran back to the makeup counter, changed back into her own clothes, and ran down 5th Avenue, balling her eyes out, afraid that she might be losing her mind.

She called her dad and said, “Dad, if you don’t come get me I am going to lose my soul.” Dad drove across the country to New York, and when he arrived she wanted to leave town, but he said he couldn’t wait to see the sights; Central Park, the Empire State Building, the Carnegie Deli, “But first we go to confession.” She made a good, tearful confession spanning the ten commandments like she was ordering off the dollar menu: ‘Two number ones, four number twos…’ She came out like a new woman, healed.  Today she goes around telling her story and supporting an organization that promotes modesty in young lades’ dress.

Leah says she was living a very selfish life before her conversion. Perhaps she was confused, as many in our culture, about the nature of true love. In English we use the word love in a broad and ambiguous way.  We say, “I love that TV show. I love the Packers. I love my children. I love my wife. I love God. I love my dog.” But all of these loves are different in kind and degree. When we say, “I love pizza,” or, “I love wine,” it is not really pizza and wine that we love so much as  ourselves.  I love myself, and that’s why I consume pizza or wine. Yet, not all love is easy, warm, and fuzzy. True love is a sacrifice, and often feels that way.

As St. Paul tells us in the first reading, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” And Jesus says in the gospel, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” Love how? “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” How did Jesus love us? Through a total gift of self.

Now we know from the Gospels that Jesus’ self-giving wasn’t always a ordeal. It was often joyful. Jesus enjoyed going to weddings, dinner parties, and spending time with His friends. But Jesus’ acts of love were the most powerful and manifest when they were hard, as when He was on the cross.

Self-gifting love powerfully good. Someone can live a life of great fame and wealth, but without self-gift their life will account for nothing.  This is the world of difference we see between George Bailey and Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Difficult self-gifting love is also the most powerful witness. Some theologians have speculated that Jesus could have redeemed in other ways besides the cross. (Perhaps a single cry from the infant God-Man would have been enough if that had been the divine plan.) But Jesus dying for us on the cross communicates a powerful message about His love for us. Jesus said, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The way we love should be a witness, it should make us stand out.

Earth is a training ground. Our life here on Earth is training for Heaven. In Heaven, self-gifting is the rule and the norm. If that’s not the sort of thing we are interested in, there will be no place for us to be at home in heaven–and there is only one other place for us to go forever. In today’s second reading, Heaven is seen “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” It is a revealing description, for spousal relationship prepares us for the life of Heaven.

We are all called to marriage and parenthood, either natural or spiritual. Some are called to live single lives, to enter religious life, or be ordained, in a fruitful spousal relationship with Christ and/or His Church. Others are called to natural marriage and to fruitfulness seen in their spousal love and its natural or spirital children.

Self-gift is the life of marriage. What if there is a priest who does not pray, who does not serve, but who seeks only his own comfort? Such a priest will eventually leave his priesthood. So it is with a natural marriage. If one spouse seeks just their own pleasure, their marriage will seem empty. But if both spouses seek to make a self-gift to the other, they will both be satisfied. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all thing will be added on to you.” If we go for self-gratification, even that escapes us, but if we focus on self-gift, satisfaction comes as well. This is the reason for the Catholic tradition of a crucifix hanging over a husband and wife’s bed.

Jesus has given us a new commandment: love one another. As He has loved us we should love one another. Such love is powerful. It should make us stand out as disciples of Christ. And it prepares us for the life of Heaven, where self-gift is rule.

Leah Darrow Interview on the Drew Mariani Catholic radio show (4/30/10)

Leah Darrow Talk to a Boston Catholic Women’s Conference (2/27/10)

A Weird Passage — Wednesday, 3rd Week in Ordinary Time—Year II

January 28, 2010

“Focus on the weird.”  That’s advice I heard that a homiletics professor once gave. “Focusing on the weird part of the readings in preparing one’s homily leads to the unlocking of mysteries. Besides, it’s what the people are most likely to be distracted thinking about during your homily anyways.” (This is a good rule of thumb for one’s personal Bible studies too.) So what’s the weird part about today’s readings? It comes in Jesus’ private answer to the disciples about His parables:

“The mystery of the Kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.”

Does Jesus really teach in parables so that the crowd will not understand?  Why teach them if you don’t want them to learn? And why would Jesus want to be misunderstood by people “in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven”? Doesn’t He want all to be saved?

Jesus spoke in parables because it allowed those with open minds and hearts to understand Him, while serving as a defense against his hostile critics (who had appeared in Mark’s Gospel just before this scene.) Those who were open to the truth would patiently ponder His imagery and come to understand.  Those who chose to be closed off to Jesus would dismissively discard His stories without comprehending. Jesus did not want to be too clear too soon with His enemies, for if He had spoken to them plainly about Himself and His mission they might have moved to kill Him too early for God’s plan to unfold fully.

Did Jesus speak in parables with His enemies “in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.” Surely not, for Jesus wills the salvation of all. The choice not to be converted and forgiven lays at their own feet. They themselves choose not to be open, not to understand, “in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.”

Are we open to Jesus’ message and will for us? We sometimes say that we wish that Jesus would be more clear about His will for our lives. Could it be that the reason Jesus doesn’t lay out His will for us plainly is that He knows we would simply answer “No” to His wishes? If we want to understand and respond to Jesus’ will for us in big things, we need to practice responding to His will for us in small, everyday things.

We need to turn off the TV or internet when He tells us we’re wasting our time. We need to respond to His invitations to prayer. We need to show patience and kindness with all the people He has placed in our day-to-day lives. If we are faithful in small matters then He will trust us to be faithful in big ones; we will hear His words, receive them with joy, and bear fruit thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.

Strengthening Your Family — Holy Family

December 29, 2009

Today we are going to try something unique. Close your eyes and let the Holy Spirit guide your imagination to show you what family life was like in the home of Joseph, Mary, and the boy Jesus…

Theirs is a small dwelling and you can see all of them there…

How old is Jesus as you see Him? What is He doing?

What are His parents up to? What are Joseph and Mary like as you see them interact with each other?

It comes to time to eat. What do you see the Holy Family doing?

As they relate to one other, what do you see expressed in their faces? It is now later in the evening and time for prayer. What do you see the members of the Holy Family doing?

You can return in your imagination to visit this house any time you wish, but now, let’s open our eyes and review our mediation.

What did you see as Joseph and Mary interacted with each other? Were they not tender and reverent towards each other? I bet you could see their great mutual love reflected in their smiles.

What happened in their house when it was time to eat? Who would imagine them not coming together to share their meal in each others’ company?

And later, when it was time for prayer, did the Holy Family do? Did you see them go off to their own corners, or did they come together, to pray as one family?

Did you see the Holy Family’s intimacy, their happiness, and their love for each other? Do you want your family to share a bond like theirs? Then take the Holy Family as your model: share your love, share your meals, and share your prayers.

First, on sharing your love. Let your spouse and children know every day that you love them. You can say it, you can show it, or you can do both. For instance, kids never tire of being hugged and told their loved each day.

As for married couples, don’t make the mistake of thinking that intimacy and love are only expressed physically. For St. Joseph had all sorts of simple, little ways to let Mary know that she was loved, and vice-versa. Be like the Holy Family in sharing your love.

A second way to model the Holy Family is to share your meals. The research of social scientists indicates that having frequent family meals together contributes many goods for one’s family: For starters, everyone eats healthier meals, and so kids are less likely to become overweight or obese. And kids who eat family meals are less likely to start smoking, to drink alcohol, or to try or to be addicted to drugs. These kids’ grades are better at school, and there is less stress in their homes. These things probably stem from the fact that families which eat together are bound to talk more, provided the TV is off.

These parents are more likely to know about their children’s lives and struggles and, just as importantly, their kids are more likely to know that their parents are proud of them and love them.

Jesus Christ thinks that the shared family meal is so important for us that He has instituted one for His Church and expects His entire family to be there; for to share in the Eucharist is to share in the life and communion of His family.

A third way to make your family more like the Holy Family is to share your prayers. Apart from dinner prayers or going to Church, most Catholic families do not pray together. I think that maybe we see the priest praying the Church’s prayers and think that we are not equipped to lead prayers of our own at home.

But it’s not true.  As fathers and mothers you have a spiritual authority within your families, what John Paul the Great called “the domestic Church.” Your spouse and your children need you to pray, not only for them, but with them. Right after the family meal might be the perfect time for this ritual of family prayer.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “But we’ve never done this as a family before.” Remember this: as parents, you create what’s normal for you children. If you want it to be normal for your children to eat meals with you, then make it normal for them.

If you want it to be normal for your children to pray to God with you, then do it normally. As parents, you create what is normal for your children and through your gift of these traditions to them you can bless them for a lifetime.

Finally, husbands and wives, if you do not pray one-on-one with each other, then you do not yet share a perfect intimacy together.  It is in prayer that our most intimate selves are laid bare and we ask another person to help us with our heartfelt needs and concerns.

Maybe you’ve never prayed with your spouse before. Then perhaps you can begin like this:  hold each others’ hands, close you eyes, and pray to God for each other, for a little while, even if for just ten seconds, say, before you go out the door. 

Once this becomes comfortable you can begin to telling each other what you want to be prayed for. And, after this is comfortable, you can begin to pray for each other aloud.  Begin the process of praying like this and it will transform your intimacy together.

Perhaps you gave many gifts to your family members yesterday for Christmas, but the greatest gift you can give to each other is yourselves. So follow the way of the Holy Family: share your love, share your meals, and share your prayers.

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year B

October 25, 2009

Return of Vampire. 1944.

Next Saturday, as the children here may know, is Halloween, the evening celebration involving crazy costumes, yummy candy, and scary stuff. But this evening was formerly popularly known as All Hollows’ Eve, for it is the vigil of All Saints Day, November 1, the Solemnity of God’s hallowed ones. oday, I would like to talk to you about vampires, that’s right, vampires. Now vampires are not real, but we can learn a lot from their mythology and bad example, for vampires are embodiments of the anti-Gospel.

For example, Christians are children of the light and of life, but vampires are creatures of the night, of darkness and of death. Vampires fear the daytime and they sleep in coffins. Vampires tempt, seduce, and exploit others. They manipulate persons as things to be used. Vampires steal others’ blood and take their lives. This is the opposite of Christ, who tempts, seduces, and exploits no one. Rather, Jesus calls, invites, persuades, and challenges with the truth, with goodness, and with love. He treats everyone as a person to be loved. Rather than taking, Jesus gives us His blood and His life, His entire living person in the Eucharist, so that we can share His life.

How do you defeat an otherwise immortal vampire? Traditionally, there are two ways: either drag him into the sunlight, or put a wooden steak through the heart. Why do these tactics work against them?      These things work because vampires are personified evil, and evil cannot overcome either the light of Christ or the wood of His cross.

There’s one more element of vampire mythology with something to teach us. Vampires can only enter a house, if they are invited inside by the people who live there. In vampire stories, the peasants don’t realize that the attractive, charming, intriguing person at their door is really a vampire, so they invite him in without realizing the threat he poses, or their own vulnerability.

Now comes the scary part of the homily, where we apply the lesson to ourselves. What have we unguardedly welcomed into the heart of our homes? What in our lives most resembles the vampire? It is, I suggest, the television and the internet.

Now granted, television and the internet are not digitized evil, like the vampires are personified evil. There is real good to be gained through these forms of technology, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that they can’t seduce us. More often than not, it seems that television and the internet suck our lives out of us. They are up to our necks, but we are too infatuated with, or hypnotized by, them to realize that something is wrong.

Ask yourself, when was the last time that you watched TV and came away thinking, “Wow, that was great.  You know, I really think watching television made me a better person”? Now consider this question: when was the last time you watched TV and came away from it feeling unmoved and unsatisfied? That dissatisfaction should tell us something. Television sucks our life from us, and the internet can be just as bad, or even worse. Not only do these forms of media tend to disappoint us, numb us, and give near occasions to sin, they can harm our families too.

TV Children

Imagine if there was going to be a public execution in Marshfield tonight and your son wanted to go and watch, would you let him go? Yet how much death, simulated and real, is there to be seen on TV? Would you allow a complete stranger into your daughter’s bedroom unsupervised? Yet how many of our children have a TV or the internet right in their rooms? If TV or the internet were a person, would you welcome that person into your home?

Again, I am not saying that everything on television or the internet is evil, or that every good Catholic should discontinue their cable and internet subscriptions. But I am convinced that we need to be more careful and discerning about their roles in our lives, and that our habits with them probably need to change.

It could be that the single greatest thing you could do today to strengthen your family life and to improve your life of prayer would be to simply unplug. Imagine how much more opportunity and motivation you would have every day for family bonding and quiet times with God, if you put all your TVs in the basement and hid the internet cables along with them. Why not try it for a week? Or, if you’re really serious, why not make this your Advent penance and see how much your life is changed?

Like the psalmist said,

‘Although you may go forth weeping,
you’ll be carrying the seed to be sown,
And you shall come back at the end rejoicing,
carrying the sheaves you’ve harvested.’

After your unplugged period is over, you can bring the TV and the internet back if you want, but you will be freed from any addictions to them and they will be less likely to seduce you in the future, into the life of the living dead.

In the Gospel, the blind man, Bartimaeus, threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and ran to Jesus. Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied, “Master, I want to see.”

Like vampires, change in our lives can be scary, but we should have the courage to see how much our lives could be better by following Christ in this way.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year B

September 6, 2009

Remember what it was like before the dot-com bubble burst? Maybe you heard about tiny internet start-ups having total stock values in the billions and you just knew that that wouldn’t last. Remember the time before the recent housing bubble popped? I remember watching a show on TV called “Flip this House” in which a couple bought a building, put two weeks of work and a few thousand dollars into cleaning it up, and then quickly sold it for several tens of thousands of dollars more than what they bought it. I remember saying to myself then, “This just can’t go on. This isn’t sustainable.”

The thing about economic bubbles is that while you can often read the signs of the times and see that the bubble’s there, you’re never quite sure when it will pop.

For years now, our country has been riding on a similar bubble with the unsustainable spending and borrowing by the federal government. We’re not quite sure when it will finally pop, but you can see that the bubble’s there.  Most of us here will witness firsthand the consequences of its bursting.

The Congressional Budget Office is a non-partisan, independent government agency that provides economic data to Congress. And for years, regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans were in power, the CBO has consistently reported the unfortunate facts and grim forecasts of our present course. This summer, the CBO published its “Long-Term Budget Outlook.” And they tell us, quote…

“Under current law, the federal budget is on an unsustainable path—meaning that federal debt will continue to grow much faster than the economy over the long run.

Although great uncertainty surrounds longterm fiscal projections, rising costs for health care and the aging of the U.S. population will cause federal spending to increase rapidly under any plausible scenario for current law. […]

Keeping deficits and debt from reaching levels that would cause substantial harm to the economy would require increasing revenues significantly…, decreasing projected spending sharply, or some combination of the two.”

Some or all of the following things will inevitably happen: an increased federal retirement age, decreased retirement benefits from Social Security, decreased health benefits from Medicare and/or Medicaid, increased federal taxes, or (and this seems the most likely) a dramatically increased national debt.

Now understand that an endlessly ballooning national debt is no solution.  It has economic consequences for us. What happens when foreign countries finally decide they are no longer interested in holding any more of our debt (in the form of low-interest yielding U.S. government bonds?) One result will be hyper-inflation, which will negatively impact anyone who uses U.S. Dollars. Unpleasant changes are coming. And they will have real consequences our lives. We will feel their effects.

Maybe hearing me speak about these grim realities feels as if I’ve just spit on your tongue.  It’s unpleasant and a bit repulsive. But my hope and prayer is that you will “be opened” by it, that you will be motivated to prepare yourself for what is coming, to begin living now as we should have already been living as Chrisitians all along.

In the past we have lived beyond our means, just like crowd, just like the government made in our own image. We spent more than we had and we often spent wastefully. But we are called to live differently, to live out Christian stewardship, Christian poverty, or simplicity of life in our own lives. Let’s not wait to hit economic rock bottom before we begin living as we ought to.

We are called to live simply and within our means, free from debt-slavery. We are called to be both frugal and generous, generous and frugal. If we are frugal without generosity, we’re simply being misers. If we are generous without frugality, we are being irresponsible. But if you are both frugal and generous won’t God, who (as the psalmist says) keeps faith forever, who secures justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry, who supports the fatherless and the widow, won’t He provide you with what you need? On the other hand, if we are not frugal and generous, if we do not lovingly support our poor neighbors, those in our parish, throughout the diocese, and abroad, then how can we ask God to support us?

To quote St. James, “Act on this word.  If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves.” “Fear not, be strong.” “Be not afraid,” but prepare yourself. Prepare for the days when our accounts will come due.  For a day coming soon in our country, and for the Last Day, when we shall all appear before God.